To judge by several early polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has a decent shot of beating former President Donald Trump in the race to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Some liberals have pronounced this terrible news — because, they say, a DeSantis presidency would be just as awful as, and perhaps even worse than, a second Trump term.
This is wrong. A DeSantis presidency would be bad in many ways, and my fellow liberals should fight with all they have to prevent it. But Mr. DeSantis almost certainly would not be worse than Mr. Trump.
Exaggerating the threat posed by the Florida governor could inadvertently increase Mr. Trump’s prospects in the Republican primaries. And if Mr. DeSantis does get the nomination, progressive overreaction toward him in the primary contest could ultimately undermine the case against him in the general election.
The case against Mr. DeSantis is rooted in his policy commitments. During his time as Florida’s chief executive, he has governed from the hard right, taking aggressive aim at voting rights, pursuing politicized prosecutions, restricting what can be taught in public schools and universities, strong-arming private businesses, using refugees as human props to score political points and engaging in flagrant demagogy about vaccines. Before that, as a congressman, he supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare and voted for a bill that would have severely weakened Obamacare. All of that provides ample reason to rally against him should he end up as the Republican nominee in 2024.
But none of it makes Mr. DeSantis worse than Mr. Trump, who also did and sought to do bad things in office: the Muslim travel ban, forcibly separating migrants from their children, and much else.
Could the Trump era have been worse? Absolutely, and here liberals have a point when they suggest Mr. Trump’s ability to wreak havoc was limited by his ineptness. Based on what we’ve seen of Mr. DeSantis’s performance as governor of Florida, a DeSantis administration would likely display much greater discipline and competence than what the country endured under Mr. Trump.
Yet it’s also the case that people in the Trump orbit recognize this problem and plan to ensure things work out differently next time. That includes ideas for bolder action on policy and much tighter and more focused management of the president, with an eye toward running an administration capable of acting much more shrewdly and ruthlessly than the last time.
So let’s stipulate that Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis would both try to do bad things in office. Mr. Trump still brings something distinctive and much more dangerous to the contest — or rather, several things. He’s flagrantly corrupt. He lies constantly. He’s impulsive and capricious. And he displays a lust for power combined with complete indifference to democratic laws and norms that constrain presidential power.
The way to summarize these various personal defects is to say that Mr. Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. That was obvious to many of us before his surprise victory in 2016. It was confirmed on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis throughout his presidency. And it became indisputable when he refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and helped spur efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
That makes Mr. Trump categorically more dangerous than anyone else running or likely to run for president in 2024 — including Mr. DeSantis.
Those who suggest Mr. DeSantis would be worse than Mr. Trump often make the additional point that Mr. Trump was quite unpopular and outrightly repulsive to many, whereas Mr. DeSantis has proved himself capable of winning over mainstream voters in his home state. That makes Mr. DeSantis potentially a more popular candidate and president than Mr. Trump was or is likely to be. And that could empower Mr. DeSantis to enact more sweeping policy changes were he elected.
There are other things to worry about. Mr. Trump’s lack of popularity added to his dangerousness because it made his administration appear illegitimate. He was a president with an anti-mandate — he lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.9 million votes in 2016 and suffered persistently low approval ratings — who nonetheless pressed on with enacting extreme shifts in policy. That made the Trump years uniquely polarizing and unstable.
Policies can be reversed. A shredded civic fabric is much more difficult to mend.
Liberals have a long history of hyping fears of Republican presidential candidates, from Lyndon Johnson’s “daisy” ad (about Barry Goldwater and a potential threat of nuclear war) to sometimes hysterical warnings about various dire threats posed by John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
We heard similarly terrible things about Donald Trump in 2016 — but this time they were true. As with the story of the boy who cried wolf, a real wolf had finally arrived.
It’s crucially important that liberals make what should be a cogent case against Mr. DeSantis without resorting to exaggeration that will undermine their own credibility, particularly with persuadable voters. The most effective approach will be to build a case tailored to the distinctive defects of whichever candidate makes it to the general election. Stick to the facts: Mr. DeSantis is a bully who’s ready and willing to trample freedom of speech and expression, voting rights and common decency to win the applause of the Republican base so he can win office and advance the G.O.P. dream of gutting the social safety net in return for tax cuts that benefit wealthy right-wing donors.
To make the unconvincing claim that a DeSantis presidency would be even worse than another four years of Mr. Trump isn’t necessary and could even undercut the liberal argument.
Calling Mr. DeSantis bad should be good enough.
Damon Linker, a former columnist at The Week, writes the newsletter “Eyes on the Right” and is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
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