Donald Trump’s expected indictment for an alleged hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels is obviously a big complicating factor in his campaign to win next year’s GOP presidential nomination. But it’s nearly as vexing for the man who looks likely to be his main challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Over the last year or so, DeSantis has turned himself into a top presidential contender by treading a careful path, advertising his allegiance to the MAGA masses while building out a profile that is distinct from Trump’s – and ultimately, he hopes, more appealing to Republican voters.
Most Republicans looking to get ahead (Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, etc) spent years fluffing Trump’s ego on Fox News because that was the surest way to get attention and signal one’s Republican bona fides. But this came at a price: Playing the role of Trump courtier consigned them to “beta male” status, making it hard to mount a convincing challenge to him in 2024. DeSantis elided this problem by recognising that conservatives respond to the kind of big, loud, confrontational cultural fights that Trump specialises in – and that they didn’t automatically have to involve Trump.
So DeSantis launched a bunch of fights that might be thought of as “Trump adjacent” and cast himself in the starring role: battling Covid mask mandates in Florida, going after “woke” Disney, sending a planeload of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to upset liberals and delight Fox News viewers. The problem with DeSantis’s strategy is that he couldn’t put off a direct confrontation forever. Eventually, he’d have to face Trump. I expected the reckoning to come on a debate stage. But Trump appears to have chosen the occasion of his indictment to force the issue a lot sooner.
In classic Trumpian fashion, he’s cast his self-inflicted legal travails as a witch hunt by perfidious deep state liberals like Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg and demanded that Republicans publicly defend him. DeSantis could do the obvious political thing and attack Trump frontally by reminding Republican voters that his reckless disregard for the law (to say nothing of his own marriage) risks inflicting further electoral damage on the GOP and handing Joe Biden another term. In addition to shoring up his own masculinity, DeSantis would boost his chances of beating Trump next year.
DeSantis’s biggest attribute as a presidential candidate is that he’s perceived to have broader electoral appeal than Trump. But a CNN poll last week highlighted a key obstacle for him: Republicans, unlike Democrats, don’t put a particularly high premium on electability. Only 41% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they’d choose a candidate based on his or her ability to beat Biden, while 59% said they’d choose the person who agrees with their views on major issues. Trump led the poll. DeSantis will have to take him down a peg or two if he hopes to prevail.
Making a move now might be the best chance DeSantis gets. Trump’s indictment marks the first time a former president has ever been charged with a crime. The scandal doesn’t implicate other Republican politicians or even Trump supporters, as the Jan. 6 riots did. Unlike his removal of classified documents, there’s no argument that national security is at stake or any matter other than Trump’s own feelings of martyrdom. All his huffing and puffing aside, what’s at issue is no more than a personal affair. For DeSantis, it won’t get easier than this. If he can’t muster the courage – or at least the political wisdom – to point this out to voters, it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s attacks won’t soon have their intended effect.