Published December 13, 2023
During the 2016 presidential primaries, Sen. Ted Cruz tried a Texas two-step to win the Republican nomination. “The Establishment’s only hope: Trump & me in a cage match. Sorry to disappoint – @realDonaldTrump is terrific,” he tweeted prior to the Iowa caucuses, hoping to bear-hug his way into a two-way race against Donald Trump. It wasn’t long before he pivoted toward attacking Trump with both barrels. But by then, of course, it was too late.
Through much of 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has seemed to have been pursuing a version of that same strategy, shying away from leveling critiques of the former president that could seem too stringent. His campaign strategy was to leverage his successful record of advancing conservative priorities in the Sunshine State to appeal to Trump’s supporters, while at the same time connecting with college-educated Republicans longing for a contender with less baggage.
A strategic détente towards Trump may have made some sense in the summer months, but the clock has run out. Tuesday night’s CNN town hall with DeSantis in Iowa may have been his pivot toward a more direct line of attack. At various points throughout his hour on stage, DeSantis offered his most pointed critiques to date of the former president, dinging him on issues from Covid to abortion to temperament.
It was far from the type of gloves-off pummeling that someone like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might have offered. But it was a sign that DeSantis and his advisers realize the hour is getting late.
DeSantis still has a war chest, and Tuesday’s town hall illustrated the extent to which he has pushed all his chips in on the Iowa caucuses (unfriendly territory in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the second and third states in the primary lineup, likely influenced his decision).
He remains a less-than-fluid campaigner, pandering a little too obviously to pork producers and Iowa farmers. But the format of the town hall played to his strengths as someone comfortable with briefing books and policy white papers, without the crosstalk of the primary debate stage. In the more personal format, his anecdotes about serving as a JAG officer or facing his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, while not show-stopping, helped humanize him.
Most importantly, he wasted no time throwing some jabs at Trump, shoehorning a critique of his Covid policies into the first question of the night. He contrasted his experience as governor with his party’s “cheap” talk around immigration and criticized broken promises on a border wall and replacing Obamacare. In stump speeches, DeSantis has been increasingly willing to sidle up to directly criticizing Trump; this was the sharpest his elbows had been on a national stage.
His new tactics were most evident when he accused the former president of “flip-flopping on the right to life.” In a heavily evangelical state like Iowa, DeSantis was smart to say that Trump spoke about the gift of unborn life in 2020 before swinging to calling pro-life legislation a “terrible thing” this year. Trump’s willingness to sandbag the movement to restrict abortion might be a cynically smart play in a general election, but is a real weakness in a Republican primary, and DeSantis was correct to hold him to account.
But DeSantis also let slip his instincts with the pre-Trump, tea party-era Republican Party. As in the economic platform he released this summer, he offered some vaguely populist ideas but ultimately relied on policies that wouldn’t have been amiss in any GOP administration this century. He rattled off policies that have been on conservative wish lists for decades and remain completely impractical, like a balanced budget amendment or congressional term limits.
To the extent that the primary is about ideas, rather than getting back at “the elites,” DeSantis’ down-the-line conservative appeals may struggle against Trump’s more impressionistic suite of policy stances that can appeal to a broader range of voters.
But the general trajectory of the primary suggests a race that won’t turn on policy stances. Despite Trump’s harsh words for pro-lifers and deviations from conservative orthodoxy, he maintains a position at the head of the party. The fact that Trump continues to amass momentum in most tracking polls suggests GOP voters see a third Trump nomination as their most effective way of thrusting a middle finger towards an establishment they see as corrupt and out of touch.
It’s possible there is nothing DeSantis could have done differently to alter that fundamental dynamic. But if he is to have any chance at avoiding an early exit from the 2024 race, his criticisms of Trump have increasingly needed to be less subtext and more overt. Tuesday’s town hall — while far from a full-throated battle cry — suggested an 11th-hour reckoning with that fact.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.