The Awkward DeSantis Straddle
Ron DeSantis isn't entirely sure what he should think about foreign policy. What do you want him to think?
When we last visited Florida governor Ron DeSantis, he was making incoherent statements about the war in Ukraine. It’s been a month and… not much has changed really! His incoherence on Ukraine persists. It is possible, however, that the reasons behind his muddled statements are coming into focus.
But let’s start with the incoherence! A few weeks go,
Rupert Murdoch outlet Times of London editor David Charter was granted a long interview with the everyone-but-Rupert media-shy DeSantis. The interview was mostly favorable… except for the Ukraine section. According to Charter:
I ask about Ukraine and he says that “there's a critique of Biden, and I think I'm sympathetic to it in the sense that, is our policy just do whatever Zelensky wants? Or do we have a concrete idea of what we're trying to achieve exactly?”
When I ask him how it should be handled differently, he refers to Biden being “weak on the world stage” and failing at deterrence, but as that is not answering how it should be handled now, I ask again. DeSantis does not have anything to add: “Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I've said enough.”
It’s never a good sign for a candidate to reveal that he’s only memorized one index card’s worth of material on an important subject matter.
As recently as last week, DeSantis continued to sound very similar to Donald Trump on U.S. support for Ukraine. In his written response to a Tucker Carlson query about the war, DeSantis attempted to serve up some MAGA red meat. Among other things, he said:
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. The Biden administration’s virtual “blank check” funding of this conflict for “as long as it takes,” without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges.
That “territorial dispute” line did not go over well with a lot of folks. The Florida governor got a fair amount of pushback from Senate Republicans and
Rupert Murdoch conservative media outlets that had previously bent over backwards to fête DeSantis as The Great Not-Trump (with sometimes embarrassing results). Even Marco Rubio gave a patronizing response to DeSantis’ answer, suggesting “obviously, he doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor.”
Why he said it is the more interesting question. As Noah Rothman noted, when he was in Congress, DeSantis favored arming Ukraine more than the Obama administration. Why the flip-flop? NRO’s Dan McLaughlin suggested, “as a pure matter of electoral positioning divorced from the merits of the Ukraine war, it is savvy politics.” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, by contrast, concluded, “DeSantis is taking positions that are similar to Trump's but which hurt his ability to build a non-Trump coalition in the primary, and he also gets criticized for them in a way Trump doesn't.”
Based on what he has said this week, it would appear that Haberman was onto something. DeSantis attempted to course-correct in an interview with Piers Morgan, branding Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.” Haberman and Jonathan Swan provide the highlights in their New York Times writeup:
To Mr. Morgan, Mr. DeSantis insisted that his comment about a “territorial dispute” had been “mischaracterized,” but he acknowledged he could have been clearer.
“Obviously, Russia invaded” in 2022, Mr. DeSantis said. “That was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”….
“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region, Donbas, and then Crimea,” Mr. DeSantis said. He added, “There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting, and that’s what I was referring to, and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it.”
But he added, “I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified” in invading is “nonsense.”
One could try to argue that DeSantis’ comments to Carlson and Morgan are reconcilable. Indeed, McLaughlin’s pointed out that even his first statement alone could be parsed in ways suggesting that he wasn’t going to pull support from Ukraine so much as not extend any further assistance. But then DeSantis seemed to flip-flop yet again in a Newsmax interview, tacking back towards Trump’s position.
Follow-on efforts to divine a coherent DeSantis worldview reveal an even greater muddle. In a follow-on piece of NYT analysis, Swan, Haberman, and Kitty Bennett quote David Reaboi stating, “he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian.” Except that the Times story also notes, “The New York Times could find no public record of the Florida governor describing himself as a Jacksonian.” Politico’s Alexander Ward engages in a similar exercise of analyzing DeSantis’ foreign policy record and writes, ”In foreign-policy-speak, he’s not a ‘Wilsonian’ seeking to remake the world in America’s image, but he’s not fully a populist ‘Jacksonian,’ either.” In other words… muddle. Lots of muddle.
I don’t doubt that DeSantis has some foreign policy thoughts that represent his true beliefs. He served in the military, he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a term, he’s a governor with an incentive to pay attention to Latin America. He’s not an idiot. But let’s be honest, that doesn’t explain what we’ve been hearing over the past few weeks. His effort to hand-wave away his Ukraine comments from last week was definitely a vibe shift, one that was premised on dubious word games. It annoyed those in the MAGA caucus who embraced his first statement. According to Haberman and Swan’s first story, Carlson was apparently pretty pissed about DeSantis’ clarifications. Hence the next flip-flop.
So what’s going on? My hunch is that it has little to with foreign policy; campaigns are loath to make specific promises in that area. It is rather about the second DeSantis campaign narrative that has emerged in recent weeks: his nascent presidential campaign is stumbling just a little. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn noted last week that DeSantis’ numbers were starting to soften: “it’s the trend that’s important, and the trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.”1 The Daily Beast’s Jake Lahut and Zachary Petrizo also served up a brutal story on DeSantis’ lack of people skills on the campaign trail, and there are more stories like that one out there.2
DeSantis’ problem is that as much as he tries to sound like Trump, he’s not Trump. The significant fraction of the GOP base that likes Trump will tolerate DeSantis but won’t vote for him if Trump is on the ballot.3 Haberman is right: the only way DeSantis wins is if he differentiates himself enough to curry favor with GOP party leaders and
Rupert Murdoch media elites to soak up Republican voters who are not so enamored with Trump. At the same time, he can’t stray too far from the MAGA path. Foreign policy is usually not an important part of a presidential primary, so DeSantis can waffle a bit on it to try to please as wide a spectrum of GOP voters as possible. Too much waffling, however, and that is what everyone starts to notice.
Expect this straddle to continue for a while. It’s going to be awkward to watch and awkward to execute. Whether it works is the real question.
We’re gonna have at least a year of this before we find out. Buckle up.
This led an accidentally hilarious tweet by McLaughlin pushing back on the story: “It says a lot about Ron DeSantis that the one real criticism of him outside of his political positions is that he has a very un-politiciany personality.” Right, because there are so many things about a politician that matter outside of his political positions and personality!