Donald Trump, who announced Tuesday night that he will seek the White House for another term in 2024, has never made policy central to his political career. So conservative policy experts do not necessarily expect the Republican primary electorate to be swayed by the intricacies of his or any other candidate’s agenda.
Nevertheless, Republicans who are dubious of Trump’s return are uncomfortable with not only his bigotry and authoritarian streak but also his disinterest in governance itself.
And so with Trump and his movement taking much of the blame for the GOP’s disappointing midterms, Trump-skeptical Republicans see new weakness in the former president. High-profile conservative commentators are touting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who easily won reelection in what was once a swing state, as the preferred Trump alternative if he decides to run for the presidency in 2024.
As the governor of one of the largest states who has spent years building up his conservative bona fides, DeSantis has long been eyed as a possible successor to Trump. But with Trump now in the running, the governor will have to give voters a reason to vote for him instead of the former president.
“As far as I can tell, there are no serious policy differences between Trump and DeSantis at the moment. The biggest divergence between the two is competence and execution,” Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the conservative movement, told me. “I wouldn’t expect a Trump-DeSantis presidential primary to swing on policy. Such a contest, if it happens, will be a test of Republican primary voters’ willingness for new leadership and a chance at victory.”
But that still requires drawing a meaningful contrast with Trump — not something that, to date, DeSantis nor many other elected Republicans have been willing to do since Trump won the 2016 GOP primary. So I asked a group of conservative policy wonks where they saw or expected to see a distinction being made between Trump and DeSantis, who seem for the time being to be the strongest contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination.
There was not an obvious answer. Trump has not stuck with a consistent policy platform and DeSantis has largely governed as a conventional Republican for the past four years (and voted as one in the US House before that). There may be little space between them on typically important subjects like taxes or regulation. Trump has, when he has paid much mind to policy, focused primarily on immigration and trade. DeSantis, perhaps with future national ambitions in mind, has picked hawkish fights on both of those issues, while also stoking the culture-war flames in a way that can feel reminiscent of Trumpism (without the Trump).
Ultimately, that may be the terrain on which the 2024 GOP primary is fought: less over specific policy differences and more over whether DeSantis can convince the Trumpist base that he can also be trusted on the issues where they place absolute faith in the former president.
“It’s not so much going to be about policy differences, but who do you trust to fight the woke left?” Avik Roy, who leads the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, told me. “That will be the ground on which the campaign is fought.”
Where Trump and DeSantis might actually disagree on policy
There are early indications of where DeSantis might put his policy record or plans up against Trump’s, to loosen the former president’s hold on the Republican base. Ironically, it starts with the issue that helped topple Trump’s presidency while also turning DeSantis into a national hero for many conservatives and a loathsome villain for Democrats: Covid-19.
Roy said he thought the pandemic response would be a point of emphasis for DeSantis. While Trump often confused and undermined his own administration’s plans with his off-the-cuff rhetoric, he was still the president who put Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — who became avatars for an overbearing response in the eyes of many GOP voters — in charge. It was his administration that recommended a two-week partial shutdown of the economy in order to try to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in the spring of 2020.
DeSantis charted a deliberately different path. He resisted calls to close schools and businesses. Roy described the governor’s approach as one of conviction, driven by data. Florida’s record on Covid-19 is more mixed than DeSantis’s fans might have you believe — the state’s economy did recover more quickly, but it also ranks 12th out of the 50 states in coronavirus deaths per capita.
But for Republican voters who are more skeptical of government intervention, and saw much of the pandemic response as an overreaction, DeSantis could criticize Trump for those unpopular measures while offering the Florida experience as an example of the alternative approach — the crux of his argument against Trump, no matter the specific issue.
Roy described DeSantis’s potential argument on Covid-19 like this: “During the pandemic, when Trump was out to lunch, drifting from policy and policy, we were really consistent and Floridians benefited a lot from that.”
It’s a case DeSantis himself has started to make, if obliquely, in national appearances that are helping to lay the groundwork for his expected presidential candidacy.
“Stack up their records on that issue,” Roy said. “In a Republican primary, that’s a case DeSantis can make very convincingly.”
Beyond that issue, though, the policy experts I spoke with did not see many obvious differences between Trump and DeSantis. On taxes, for example, “I am not sure Trump or DeSantis has or will articulate a position on tax policy that is different than the bread-and-butter Republican position of lower taxes being better,” said Kyle Pomerleau, senior fellow at AEI.
Part of the problem is that, as governor, “the set of policy issues [DeSantis] focuses on is actually quite different than the ones that would be front and center in a national GOP primary,” Oren Cass, executive director of the conservative policy think tank American Compass, said. “I would expect him to start establishing a profile on that set of economic and foreign policy issues in the coming months.”
Foreign policy will be one issue area to watch. Trump brought an end to expansionist neoconservative dominance of Republican politics, reintroducing an isolationist streak that had been mostly dormant for decades. DeSantis generally took a hawkish stance as a member of the US House of Representatives, criticizing the Obama administration for making overtures to Cuba and Iran and ridiculing the nascent BDS movement that sought to penalize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. He has also as governor signed executive orders meant to limit his state’s trade relationship with China and Russia.
At the same time, DeSantis has glommed onto some of Trump’s more heterodox foreign policy positions: In one interview during his first run for governor, DeSantis said that he does support the NATO alliance but credited Trump with drawing attention to some of its problems.
Then there is DeSantis’s economic agenda, still a bit of a black box. As Michael Brendan Doughtery wrote in the National Review this fall, DeSantis’s “isn’t Florida grand?” message may have limited appeal in the Rust Belt. States that voted for Obama and then Trump are looking for an economic plan to revitalize their industries. New tax cuts and infrastructure projects, two hallmarks of his time as governor, aren’t going to draw a meaningful contrast with Trump. The 2017 tax bill remains Trump’s signature achievement and he obsesses over infrastructure (though he failed to close the deal on a major bill as president).
“What is the DeSantis message about the American economic model?” Doughtery wrote, implying the answer was not yet obvious.
What is DeSantis going to do for the next two years?
So the particulars of the disagreements between Trump and DeSantis will be hashed out in the coming months, as the 2024 campaign heats up in earnest. But the stakes of that debate are already clear: In order to topple the current leader of the Republican Party, DeSantis needs to persuade some of Trump’s supporters.
On that front, as Roy described it, it becomes a matter of trust. Who will fight the left? Trump’s entire personal brand is tied up in the idea of him as a fighter. So it’s telling that DeSantis has spent much of his time as governor picking fights meant to agitate the left and win plaudits on the right.
Two particular episodes come to mind. First there was DeSantis’s standoff with Disney over his state’s “don’t say gay” education bill. After some deliberation, the company announced its support for repealing the law and said it would stop donating money to politicians who supported the policy. DeSantis went on the offensive, ginning up legislation that would roll back Disney’s privileged tax status within the state.
“It’s not that he’s deviating from free market philosophy, but the fights he’s fighting are blending traditional free market values with concerns of social conservatives,” Roy told me.
Then there was DeSantis’s plot to transfer migrants from the southern US border to Massachusetts. The maneuver was derided by many for being inhumane and dishonest toward the people who were most directly affected. But for the Republican primary audience, it was a chance for DeSantis to show his willingness to fight, to stick it in the eyes of progressives, on an issue that the conservative base cares deeply about.
More stunts may follow. DeSantis’s office has already made plans to transfer even more migrants out of Florida to Illinois and Delaware and they may follow through in the next few weeks based on the contracts underlying the plan. He may look for more opportunities to antagonize progressives on education curriculum (he is a big anti-critical race theory guy) and on LGBTQ rights.
But after the election results, one issue looms in particular: abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade animated many swing voters in 2022 and Democrats are likely going to continue to emphasize reproductive rights in campaign seasons to come so long as Republicans continue to roll back those rights at the state level.
DeSantis has been methodical in the wake of the Dobbs decision, at least so far. He did succeed in passing new abortion restrictions this year, but they were not as extreme as the near-total bans seen elsewhere, prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks.
As the Tallahassee Democrat reported before the 2022 election, DeSantis was decidedly noncommittal about further abortion restrictions during his reelection campaign. Though he is thought to support a six-week ban, he and his office refused to say what policies they would try to pass during a second term.
It remains to be seen whether DeSantis sees the results of the 2022 midterms and decides to pull back. On the other hand, he may decide to plow ahead to continue building support for his presidential run within the Republican base. Whatever he decides to do, it will have major implications for a potential presidential campaign. Democrats would surely hammer the governor over a six-week ban.
But what would Trump do?
On the one hand, the former president can claim ownership of the conservative Supreme Court that overturned Roe, after appointing three justices in just four years in office. But he has also privately expressed concerns that the issue could hurt the GOP with swing voters.
Would he use a new stringent DeSantis bill as an opportunity to separate the two of them on a pivotal issue, another chance for him to flout conservative orthodoxy? Or would alienating the base over something as foundational as abortion be too big a risk?
Either way, DeSantis will have the opportunity to make a move to which Trump must react.
Trump has shown a remarkable ability to bend the Republican Party to his will in his six years of dominance. But his forthcoming battle with DeSantis will test the strength of his hold, particularly if the up-and-coming challenger seizes on (small) areas of daylight between the two of them.