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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 16: DeSantis/Trump Alliance on Ukraine May Create Larger GOP Divisions

Ron DeSantis’ sudden lurch into a position opposing U.S. assistance to Ukraine may unravel his own 2024 coalition and introduce splits into the entire GOP, as I explained at New York:

Cynics have wondered if Ron DeSantis’s recent emergence as a populist culture warrior is a bit of an opportunistic act meant to help him both sideline and co-opt Donald Trump’s MAGA movement in the 2024 presidential race. After all, before Trump helped lift him to the Florida governorship, DeSantis was a congressman with a conventional conservative profile. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus back when its claim to fame was a favoring fiscal austerity even if that meant cutting popular retirement programs (as Trump has acidly pointed out). DeSantis’s recent antics could be seen as an attempt to attract both Trump supporters and Republicans who have had enough of the 45th president but know that some Trumpism is necessary to win the election.

If that’s his play, DeSantis may have taken it a bit too far in his recent about-face on Ukraine, which he broadcast in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. As my colleague Jonathan Chait explains, the governor didn’t just hedge his strong support in Congress for U.S. aid to Ukraine or criticize Joe Biden’s handling of the conflict. Nor did he only describe Ukraine’s plight as the lesser of competing priorities — as he has done in the very recent past. No, he systematically went through the isolationist catechism on Ukraine, describing Russia’s aggression as a “territorial dispute” in which both sides are at fault while denouncing U.S. aid as “wasteful” and our whole posture as risking nuclear war.

This all sounded pretty familiar, Trump immediately noted, saying that DeSantis is “following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants.”

Nikki Haley, another announced candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential contest, agreed. “President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him — first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine. I have a different style than President Trump, and while I agree with him on most policies, I do not on those. Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo,” Haley said in a statement, per the Washington Examiner.

More generally, the backlash to DeSantis’s comments on Ukraine from key members of the Republican Establishment in the U.S. Senate was quite intense — with Lindsey GrahamJohn CornynMarco RubioJohn Thune, and Mitt Romney all deploring his new position with varying degrees of heat. Former governor and 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie went furthest, saying that DeSantis “sounds like Neville Chamberlain talking about when Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia.”

One of conservatism’s major media pillars, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, blasted DeSantis for a “puzzling surrender this week to the Trumpian temptation of American retreat,” comparing his indifference to Russian aggression unfavorably to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” posture toward adversaries like the Soviet Union. The editorial’s headline calls this DeSantis’s “first big mistake,” reflecting its perceived importance.

DeSantis is even getting serious guff over his Ukraine repositioning in the pages of National Review, which is often described as a “fanzine” for the Florida governor. National Review regular Noah Rothman denounced DeSantis’s statement to Carlson as “weak and convoluted” and “likely to haunt DeSantis in both the primary campaign and, should he make it that far, the general election. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a ‘dispute’ over territory in the same way a bank robber and depositor have a ‘dispute’ over money.” Just as telling was National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty’s defensive treatment of the Ukraine flip-flop as a piece of cheap campaign demagoguery that DeSantis would likely abandon if he actually makes it to the White House.

One pertinent question is how GOP voters feel about Ukraine and U.S. support for the beleaguered country. As Charlie Sykes notes, the party’s rank and file are divided: “A Pew poll in January found that 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the United States is giving too much aid to Ukraine, a number that has been steadily rising. But 41 percent still thought that we were not giving them enough, or that the aid was ‘about right.’” That means the sweet spot for GOP candidates is probably to attack Biden for all-purpose “weakness” — saying he emboldened thugs like Vladimir Putin, then overcompensated by making commitments to Ukraine that may exceed legitimate national interest. DeSantis has clearly gone beyond that safe posture and into America First disdain for the whole “dispute.”

The risk for DeSantis is more than just stoking doubts among some GOP primary voters, who are probably more interested in his anti-woke crusade in Florida than in what sort of foreign policy he might pursue in office. And the issue isn’t that he’s “copying” Trump, though that’s not a good look either. The bigger strategic problem is that DeSantis is trying to put together a mind-bending coalition that includes some Trump supporters as well as anti-Trump Republicans. Senator Mitt Romney, for example, seemed to hint recently that it was time for other potential candidates to give DeSantis a clean shot at the reigning champ.

What DeSantis is saying about Ukraine is precisely the kind of thing that could repel many anti-Trump Republicans or drive them into the arms of other candidates. And other GOP candidates will likely be quick to exploit a joint DeSantis-Trump position on Ukraine that alienates some GOP voters and a lot of GOP elites. Mike Pence is especially likely to join Haley in speaking out on the issue, as his mantra has been that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” In seeking to co-opt Trump on this issue, DeSantis may be shrinking what looked like a very big tent of post-Trump Republicans who looked to him as ringmaster.

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