Media reports suggest that Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are laying the groundwork to launch 2024 presidential primary bids. While there will surely be more entrants (John Bolton has already announced a bid, and Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo are both making noise), DeSantis and Haley are two of the more serious opponents Donald Trump will likely face. But the question remains: Are either willing and able to launch a sustained attack on Trump? The verdict is out.
The case for nominating DeSantis is precisely that he’s just as tough and “MAGA” as Trump—but more competent. In addition to this, DeSantis has a specific opening, too: “I think the blood-in-the-water knockout blow is the vaccines,” former conservative radio host John Ziegler told me recently, “because Trump is so deluded into believing that the vaccines—because he wants to take credit for them—were the greatest thing ever. That’s where, with way more than 50 percent of the Republican base, DeSantis can strike a knockout blow.”
In a rational world, Operation Warp Speed would be something worth bragging about. But the Republican primary electorate isn’t a rational world. As such, greenlighting the COVID-19 vaccine is potentially a serious vulnerability for Trump in a Republican primary. Meanwhile, DeSantis—who wants to empanel a grand jury to look into COVID-19 wrongdoing—is positioned to lodge such an attack. But will he?
Nikki Haley’s strategy is less direct and more complex. She’s running as the “Goldilocks” candidate, who has just the right amount of sugar and spice mixed in her MAGA. Her attacks, such as they are, are generally made by inference.
A recent appearance on Fox News’ Special Report seemed to foreshadow this. Haley talked about the importance of “generational change,” a line of criticism that can be specifically pointed at Joe Biden, while it obviously hits Donald Trump, too. She also reminded us that she has “never lost a race” (this stat also has the benefit of reminding everyone that TRUMP IS A LOSER).
You get the point. Unlike Trump, Nikki Haley is young. Nikki Haley is a winner.
And there’s more: Nikki Haley wants to “let the best woman win.” (Yes, stressing the fact that she’s a woman is a weird thing to do in a party that ostensibly hates identity politics. But let’s be honest, the Republican Party loves identity politics!)
Whether her passive-aggressive style of campaigning is brilliant or too smooth by half will be left up to the voters to decide. Regardless, Trump is already launching preemptive strikes at her and DeSantis.
On Saturday, Trump reminded reporters that Haley “publicly said that ‘I would never run against my president, he was a great president.’”
Reading between the lines, Trump is working to define Haley as ambitious, cloying, and phony. And based on her history of criticizing Trump, only to furrow her brow and suck up to him, this line of attack has the benefit of verisimilitude.
Meanwhile, Trump is trying to set the record straight about DeSantis’ vaccine record. “There are Republican governors that did not close their states… Florida was closed for a long period of time,” Trump said, adding: “They’re trying to rewrite history.”
“The outstanding question is whether DeSantis (or anyone) will actually whack Trump. So far, DeSantis has avoided any direct confrontations with the former president.”
Whining to the refs doesn’t usually work. Plus, I can’t remember a time in the past where a rival has gotten to the right of Donald Trump on a culture issue like this.
Score one for DeSantis.
Still, the outstanding question is whether DeSantis (or anyone) will actually whack Trump. So far, DeSantis has avoided any direct confrontations with the former president.
Perhaps this is a prudent and strategic example of keeping his powder dry.
But the fear is that DeSantis might make the same flawed calculation that Ted Cruz and others made in 2016: that Trump will fade on his own, and then you can inherit his supporters.
We all know how that worked out.
“Somebody is going to have to make the case that [Trump] cannot be the nominee in 2024 in the Republican Party,” conservative John Podhoretz declared on a recent episode of The Commentary Magazine podcast. “And that person has to be the one who takes Trump down. It will have to be DeSantis or Nikki Haley or something like that.”
Otherwise, Podhoretz predicted, “the second tier [candidates] will turn on each other, they’ll attack each other in an effort to make news, and they will leave Trump alone at the top. And he will, in the winner-take-all-environment of the Republican Party’s nominating process… win.”
Again, that’s exactly what happened in 2016. When it came to attacking Donald Trump, Republican candidates echoed Homer Simpson’s campaign slogan, “Can’t someone else do it?”
For Ron DeSantis, I suspect the answer is “no.”
Trump is weakened now, but he won’t go down without a fight. To defeat the reigning champion, someone has to attack Trump, keep attacking Trump, bloody his nose, and then survive the counterpunch. And while it’s tempting to try and do this on Twitter or behind a microphone, whoever bests Trump will have to have to go toe-to-toe with him on a debate stage.
In the words of Ric Flair, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
Does anyone have the guts to try?