The Devolution of Ron DeSantis

At the beginning of the year, Ron DeSantis looked as if he might be the answer to all of the Republican Party’s problems.

For the first time in decades, a conservative politician rose to national prominence on issues that unified the party’s populist base with its beleaguered establishment — and without triggering a Resistance from Florida Democrats. He seemed to offer Republicans a path beyond the divisions and defeats of the last 15 years.

Mr. DeSantis does not seem like the answer anymore. His poll numbers are cratering. His strength as a general election candidate is being questioned. This is partly because he’s fallen flat on the national stage, but it’s also because he’s slowly devolved into an older kind of Republican — the kind without answers to the party’s problems.

He’s been bogged down in the very issues that divided and hurt Republicans in the past, like abortion, entitlements, Russia and the conduct of Donald J. Trump. Against Mr. Trump and without Democrats as a foil, his instinct to take the most conservative stance has pushed him far to the right. He’s devolved into another Ted Cruz.

Mr. DeSantis will probably never be an entertainer like Mr. Trump, an orator like Ronald Reagan, or someone to get a beer with like George W. Bush. But to compete for the nomination, he will at least need to be who he appeared to be a few months ago: a new kind of conservative, who can appeal to the establishment and the base by focusing on the new set of issues that got him here: the fight for “freedom” and against “woke.”

Mr. DeSantis’s varying campaigns against everything from coronavirus restrictions to gender studies curriculums weren’t extraordinarily popular, at least not in terms of national polling, but it was a type of political gold nonetheless. It let him channel the passions of the Republican base and get on Fox News without offending bourgeoise conservative sensibilities on race, immigration and gender. In fact, many elite conservatives disliked “woke” and coronavirus restrictions just like the rank-and-file. Even some Democrats sympathized with his positions. As a result, he won re-election in Florida in a landslide. Democratic turnout was abysmal.

This combination of base and elite appeal made him a natural candidate to lead an anti-Trump coalition. In the last presidential primary, in 2016, Mr. Trump held the center of the Republican electorate and left his opposition split on either side. To his right, there was Mr. Cruz and the orthodox conservatives. To his left, there was Marco Rubio, John Kasich and the relatively moderate, business-friendly establishment. None of these factional figures stood a chance of unifying those two disparate groups, but for a fleeting moment after the midterms last year, Mr. DeSantis seemed to assemble all of the various not-necessarily-Trump factions under his banner.

Since then, Mr. DeSantis’s coalition has unraveled. His superficial struggles on the campaign trail might be evident to most, but what is more easily overlooked is an overarching struggle to balance the competing needs of an ideologically diverse coalition in a Republican primary.

His challenge has two halves. First, his instinct to move to the right has been more fraught in a Republican primary than it was when “woke” liberals were his foil. After all, there’s plenty of room to line up to the right of “woke” without alienating anyone on the right. Trying to be to the right of Mr. Trump, on the other hand, involves greater risk regarding both the general electorate and his relatively moderate supporters.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. DeSantis actually fares best among moderate voters in Republican primary polling. This probably says more about which Republicans are most skeptical about Mr. Trump than it does about Mr. DeSantis, but it nonetheless means that his conservative instincts routinely put him at odds with his own base.

In some cases, the tension between Mr. DeSantis and his base is unavoidable — and his moderate supporters will sometimes lose. A politician can’t always please every constituency. Abortion, for instance, poses a legitimate problem for Mr. DeSantis — and every Republican nowadays.

But Mr. DeSantis has not always seemed cognizant of the delicate balancing act ahead of him and has committed errors as a result. His relatively soft position on Russia regarding Ukraine, for instance, overlooked that the elite, hawkish, neoconservative right not only cares deeply about containing Russia but would also inevitably be part of any successful anti-Trump coalition. Mr. DeSantis doesn’t need to be a neocon to hold this support against Mr. Trump, but it does seem he needs to support defending Ukraine.

The second half is that the fights for “freedom” and against “woke” have not been a glue that’s held his fractious coalition together. So far this year, he’s struggled to make the race about these issues at all. Instead, abortion, entitlements, Russia and Mr. Trump have dominated the conversation.

Of all the things that have happened to Mr. DeSantis so far this year, this might be the most troubling and telling. Tactical mistakes can be fixed, but if fighting for “freedom” and against “woke” isn’t a powerful, organizing theme, then he’s not especially different from any other Republican.

This might not be entirely Mr. DeSantis’s fault. The coronavirus pandemic is over — at least for political purposes. The peak of “woke” might have come and gone as well: The arc of new left culture fights seems to have bent into a reactionary phase in which debate centers as much or more on proposed Republican restrictions on books, drag shows and A.P. history curriculums as on the latest controversy about the excesses of the left. Mr. DeSantis’s renewal of a year-old fight against Disney — the exact origins of which I suspect would stump even many regular readers of this newsletter — is a telling indicator that his campaign against “woke” is struggling for oxygen.

At the same time as Mr. DeSantis’s new issues have faded, the old issues have come roaring back. The Supreme Court and Vladimir Putin made sure of it. So did Mr. Trump, who attacked Mr. DeSantis for old statements on cutting entitlements. And while all of these issues make Mr. DeSantis vulnerable in various ways, there are few opportunities to attack Mr. Trump as too woke.

The devolution of Mr. DeSantis, in other words, is partly due to forces beyond his control. But if “freedom” or “woke” is not enough, he will probably need a new set of issues to unite open-to-anyone-but-Trump voters.

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