When former President Donald Trump threw his hat into the ring for the third time in as many presidential election cycles, the reaction in Republican circles was much like his delivery of the announcement speech itself: subdued.
Trump promised Republicans he would give them so much victory they would get “tired of winning.” But since the exhilarating upset over Hillary Clinton in 2016, there has been less winning, even under circumstances as favorable as those the GOP enjoyed in the midterm elections. The intensity of the Trump era has left many people feeling tired, however.
Yet on policy, Trump presided over a number of wins for conservatives: tax cuts, constitutionalist judges, immigration controls, ramped up energy production, the Abraham accords, and striking a blow against ISIS without any new wars.
He didn’t do it alone. But Republican presidents with stronger pedigrees than Trump left the Supreme Court perennially at least one vote short of overturning Roe v. Wade. Trump had three picks without a John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter or even a John Roberts among them.
Roe finally fell.
Trump did all these things without seeming as apologetic toward or afraid of the liberal establishment as many other Republicans, even if he was spilling his guts to New York Times reporters on the telephone at the same time.
For conservatives, it was a dilemma. The warnings about Trump’s personal qualities were vindicated by events like Jan. 6. But they were being asked to concede defeat on issues dear to them by withholding support from Trump, often by people who had confidently predicted the president who compiled these conservative wins would be a covert liberal. In many cases, these people had become functional liberal Democrats themselves by the end of Trump’s term.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Washington Examiner in 2016 that there were two Trumps.
“The big Trump is a historic figure talking about historic ideas,” Gingrich said. “The little Trump gets involved at a personality level.” In an interview with Fox Business around the same time, Gingrich said, “The little Trump is frankly pathetic.”
How could conservatives preserve what they admired about Trump without the flaws and baggage they felt forced to tolerate?
Enter Ron DeSantis.
That’s the main reason the governor of Florida has captured Republicans’ imaginations. He is offering to replicate what Trump did, with greater discipline and without the drama.
This includes adopting Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach to liberals and the press. As much or even more than Trump, DeSantis is willing to think outside the box on Big Tech and woke capitalism, to move past the old Bush-era consensus on immigration.
DeSantis has done all this while still winning. He went from needing a recount to prevail in 2018 to receiving more than 59% of the vote for a second term, in a battleground state he governed like a conservative bastion. That’s a Ronald Reagan 1984-like margin of victory.
The red wave was a reality in Florida, while a mirage in most of the rest of the country.
All big Trump, no little Trump. No special counsels. And 44 years old rather than 76 while constitutionally eligible for a second consecutive term to boot.
Therein lies the risk for DeSantis too. Some will say he is too much of a continuation of Trump rather than the full repudiation they crave. Never Trump will mostly become Never DeSantis. A big question is whether the suburban voters repelled by Trump will respond the same way to DeSantis’s combativeness.
Another question is whether conservatives drawn to Trump will decide to stick with the original formula instead. The fact that some Republicans who are obviously eager to be rid of the troublesome orange man have so quickly gravitated toward DeSantis will cause him to be viewed with suspicion in certain circles.
There is also the fact that recent history hasn’t been kind to early Republican frontrunners who are conservative movement darlings, as Bill Owens, George Allen, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker can all attest.
DeSantis would have to differentiate himself from Trump. But for now, a major reason so many Republicans would like to see him run is that he is the first Trump alternative who seems to have learned anything from the former president’s virtues. (Those who have emulated Trump’s vices did not have such a good outing this November.)
If DeSantis decides not to do it or isn’t up to the task, it could at the very least inspire another Republican to try.