Former President Donald Trump launched his political career by steamrolling a once-popular Republican governor of Florida in the GOP primaries, assigning him a nickname and embarrassing him in debates.
Apparently on the verge of relaunching his political career early next week, Trump appears to be hoping lightning strikes twice. After a brief preelection armistice, Trump has resumed his attacks on the “average” Republican governor he clearly views as his main rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
DeSantis is ascendant, while Bush was past his prime
By the time Jeb Bush ran for president, he was eight years removed from serving as governor of Florida. His best chance to become president had probably passed 15 years before that, but Bush did not win his initial campaign for governor of Florida in 1994 while his brother was elected governor of Texas.
Jeb was the one seen as having presidential timbre. But George W. Bush was the one in his second term as governor of a major state when 2000 rolled around. The rest was history.
DeSantis is the incumbent governor of Florida. He is not part of a political dynasty that ended with unified Democratic control of the federal government. He was just reelected by more than 1.5 million votes in an erstwhile battleground state while governing as a conservative, winning the Hispanic vote in an election in which Republicans, including several Trump-endorsed candidates, generally performed well below expectations. DeSantis won by almost 20 points.
This winning in a party more tired of losing than winning may also compare favorably to Trump’s recent record.
Bush was the establishment candidate in 2016, DeSantis a rival for the populist Right
Jeb Bush at his peak was well respected among conservatives. But by the time he finally ran for president, he did so as the candidate of the party establishment. He raised a lot of money and hired prominent campaign consultants. He ran to the center compared to most of the field and was the GOP’s weakest presidential front-runner since Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 — the year Rockefeller ended up losing to Barry Goldwater.
If Bush was even the front-runner. An early 2015 CNN poll taken before Trump got in the race had him 5 points behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among Republicans nationally.
DeSantis occupies the same populist lane as Trump in the hypothetical 2024 Republican field. He is popular among conservatives. His pushback against Big Tech and woke capitalism will make him difficult to tie to the party’s business wing. That brings us to the next difference.
Bush represented GOP tendencies Trump was running against
When Trump threw his hat into the ring (or down the escalator), the Bush family name was synonymous with loose immigration policy, working with liberal Democrats to pass amnesty for illegal immigrants, invading Iraq, and nation-building in the Middle East. By 2016, the GOP base was past that.
Older Republicans remembered the father’s early rivalry with Ronald Reagan and violation of his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, even if the Bush sons enjoyed a more cordial relationship with the conservative movement.
DeSantis, by contrast, is closer to Trump’s brand and arguably to the former president’s right on COVID-19 protocols. This shows even in Trump’s criticism of DeSantis, which portrays the current Florida governor as a pretender to the throne rather than a party elite to be dethroned. Trump’s repeated references to his 2018 endorsement of DeSantis only reinforce this point.
Trump appears to have no principled objection to DeSantis
Instead, all this makes Trump’s objection to DeSantis more reminiscent of Goldwater’s jealousy of Reagan than a critique of the Bush dynasty. And by undermining another “America First” GOP figure, he runs the risk of validating the standard complaint that is really about “Trump First” with a group of voters who have never previously thought of him that way. Trump still enjoys a huge name-recognition advantage with rank-and-file Republicans, but they are competing for similar people.
Bush took Trump’s bait — DeSantis probably won’t
One of Bush’s mistakes is that he elevated Trump. He called Trump a “Chaos Candidate.” He seemed wounded by Trump’s criticism. He called him out repeatedly in debates. A Saturday Night Live skit skewered this tactic, parodying “poor, sweet Jeb Bush” preparing to “take a desperate swing at Donald now.”
By doing so, Bush helped bring Trump up to the same level as the son and brother of presidents. Bush’s failure to win most of these exchanges convincingly underscored Trump’s complaint that he wasn’t an effective fighter.
DeSantis has yet to engage.
‘Low Energy Jeb’ is a better nickname than ‘Ron DeSanctimonious’
Trump’s most effective nicknames, like all political attacks, work best when reinforcing misgivings voters already have about the intended target. Democrats might think DeSantis is sanctimonious, but Republicans mostly don’t.
Trump is scheduled to make a major announcement on Tuesday, which is expected to be a third presidential campaign. He renewed his feud with DeSantis on Thursday night.