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Ron DeSantis is caught between MAGA and Donald Trump

By Heather Digby Parton,

2023-03-15
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You know the presidential primary campaigns have begun in earnest when political reporters start trudging around Iowa and hanging out in diners to find out what the Real Americans are thinking. This week we got our first dose of this quadrennial ritual when both Donald Trump and his closest rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis showed up to give speeches and mingle with the hoi polloi.

According to the Washington Post, Trump remains his "freewheeling" self while DeSantis is tightly scripted, which is not exactly news. But there are some subtle changes. For instance, Trump is making a point of showing up unannounced at some local businesses to pretend to be a regular guy in order to contrast himself with DeSantis who is known to be cold and off-putting. DeSantis, meanwhile, is sticking to his prepared speeches in order to appeal to Republicans who are sick of Trump's incendiary rhetoric and want to hear a normal political speech. In other words, it's all about style because when it comes to policy, they are clones of each other, furiously pandering to the base, each of them trying to out MAGA the other. Their need to get to the right of each other has them both vying for the most extreme elements of the party.

Trump went after DeSantis in his speech for the first time in detail, slamming the Florida governor for being a loser who couldn't have won without him. Trump said DeSantis was taking credit for Florida doing well when it was really Sen. Rick Scott, a former Republican governor, and even former Democratic Governor Charlie Crist (!), who made Florida great again. Trump also called DeSantis a Paul Ryan acolyte and compared him to Mitt Romney, which is the lowest of blows among the MAGA faithful. And he hit him hard for his past votes to cut Social Security and Medicare. Trump is trying to portray DeSantis as an opportunist who doesn't really believe what he's saying and therefore, shouldn't be trusted. It's actually a pretty honest critique.

For his part, Desantis talked about woke stuff and then said a little bit more about wokeness and wokery and bragged again that Florida is where woke goes to die. He didn't go after Trump directly but merely hinted around it by saying that his administration doesn't leak and suggesting that he's not a drama king. According to the reports, audiences were satisfied with both candidates and want to hear more.

At this point, it seems that the only reason anyone would choose DeSantis over Trump is because they think he's more electable. He is hewing as close to Trump on policy as he can get. In fact, this week he finally decided to take a position on foreign policy and rather than stick with his former more traditional conservative stance, he went with MAGA, proving that his makeover from the hard right, Tea Party conservative he was when he was in Congress to the Trump-style culture warrior he is today is total.

Responding to a questionnaire sent out by the de facto leader of the Republican Party, Tucker Carlson, DeSantis came out against supporting the war in Ukraine, declaring that it is not an American vital interest and that there must be "peace" apparently at the price of Ukraine becoming a Russian vassal state.

While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them...Without question, peace should be the objective.

He blathered on about the Green New Deal and Biden allegedly depleting the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (not true) and said that "regime change" is off the table because whoever replaced Putin would be much worse. It's all very Trumpian and in stark contrast to his comments back in 2015 when Putin invaded Crimea:

May 21, 2015: I think if we had a policy which was firm and we armed Ukraine with defensive and offensive weapons so that they could defend themselves I think Putin would make different calculations so I think Obama's policy of weakness is actually making a larger conflict more likely.

If a Democrat is doing it it must be wrong — no matter what it is.

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Just as revealing, DeSantis suggested that the money the U.S. is spending on arming Ukraine is needed to arm our own border with Mexico, which is rapidly becoming a major policy plank on the MAGA right:

We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year from narcotics smuggled across our open border and our weapons arsenals critical for our own security are rapidly being depleted."

We can't send weapons to Ukraine because we need to defend our homeland at the border? That truly does sound ominous. I haven't heard Trump say that explicitly, but he reportedly pushed the idea of bombing Mexico numerous times during his term so I'm sure he's on board with this idea. He also believes that Ukraine is not a vital interest to America and prattled on about how Europe should be paying more as he always does when he doesn't know what he's talking about.

DeSantis' position on Ukraine is very Trumpian and in stark contrast to his comments back in 2015 when Putin invaded Crimea.

DeSantis' position has opened up yet another schism in the GOP and it's particularly galling to the establishment types who really want DeSantis to take out Trump for them. The majority of Republicans in Congress support NATO and Ukraine and are concerned about sending a message to the Russian president that if he just keeps going for a couple more years he'll have an ally in the White House who will cut off Ukraine and basically give him the country. I'm sure there was plenty of cheering in the Kremlin to hear that the two front-runners for the GOP nomination are on the same page in that regard.

Trump's response to DeSantis on Ukraine was priceless:

"[He's] following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants."

He's not wrong. DeSantis has clearly decided that his road to the nomination runs right through Donald Trump's MAGA movement and he's not going to let even the slightest bit of daylight show between him and their idol. The question is how many of them will choose him when they can have the real thing?

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