Begun, the clone war has. Ron DeSantis’ declaration to Tucker Carlson this week that the war in Ukraine is a “territorial dispute” not in America’s “vital national interests” signals that his Republican primary strategy is to run as Donald Trump’s doppelgänger (minus the gross tweets, attempted coups, and election losses).
Many of us have been saying for a long time that DeSantis offers Republicans everything Trump does, only in a younger and more competent package. In that regard, DeSantis’ decision to ape Trump is not surprising at all. On the other hand, DeSantis hadn’t FULLY committed to the bit until now—which makes this development both significant and (for some of us) demoralizing.
That’s because some of us Reagan conservatives were, perhaps naively, holding out hope that DeSantis might also be more…normal than Trump. That he might try to be something of a hybrid who marries Reagan Republicanism (which encompasses ideas like family values, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, and the sense that America is a “beacon of hope” in the world) with today’s more populist zeitgeist.
Having watched that fantasy evaporate this week, we Never Trumpers are left hoping that DeSantis is simply lying and pandering to the America First base to win the Republican nomination.
To be sure, his statement on Ukraine offers escape hatches for a future flip-flop. At some point—in a general election or in the White House—DeSantis could potentially exploit one of those loopholes and keep supporting Ukraine (without sending in American troops) as Joe Biden has.
But what we know is that DeSantis has committed to running as a Trump-Tucker clone as he attempts to wrest control of the GOP nomination.
And the question is: Is this a smart strategy?
I mean, shouldn’t DeSantis want his brand to stand in stark contrast to Trump’s? And wouldn’t Ukraine be a great place to lay down that marker?
DeSantis clearly believes that the Trump-Tucker side of the argument is gaining steam.
What is more, DeSantis wants the contrast to be about his identity—not policy. If you love Trump’s accomplishments but want someone who won’t send a bunch of crazy tweets, Ron wants you to know he’s your guy. Conversely, DeSantis wants to diminish any sense of contrast with Trump on policy issues.
This reminds me of an economic principle that applies to competition in business. Here’s a very simplistic explanation of it, as described by Wikipedia: “Hotelling’s law is an observation in economics that in many markets it is rational for producers to make their products as similar as possible… [This law also] predicts that a street with two shops will also find both shops right next to each other at the same halfway point. Each shop will serve half the market…”
I know this is an imperfect analogy, but think of it this way: DeSantis’ decision to position himself right next to Trump, while still staying ever-so-slightly on the sane side of Trump, theoretically positions him to win over everyone except Trump’s die-hard MAGA base.
It’s not a crazy gambit. On the other hand, there are some serious dangers inherent in this strategy.
Because DeSantis has caved to pressure, he looks weak and like a follower (instead of a leader). Trump and Nikki Haley have already accused DeSantis of “copying” Trump. A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he comes off as the alpha dog. DeSantis has just proven that he’s more of a lap dog.
Another point that liberal columnist Bill Scher brought up to me during a recent conversation: What does DeSantis do if Trump starts to stake out even more radical positions on Ukraine?
At some point, cloning Trump becomes untenable to anyone who wants to preserve a shred of dignity and respectability. Not only can you not out-bid Trump, you can’t even keep pace.
What happens if and when, for example, Trump says Ukraine should surrender to Russia or starts saying disgusting things about Volodymyr Zelensky? At some point, hugging Trump is too messy.
There’s also this: Even if you concede the trend is toward isolationism, we are still talking about a lot of Republicans who might see support for Ukraine as a sine qua non. It’s entirely possible that DeSantis’ comments about Ukraine will boost other, more traditional non-Trump Republican candidates, which would split the non-Trump vote and help Trump win with a mere plurality.
It’s impossible to know how this contest will play out, but what we do know is that DeSantis has taken a bet—and it’s a big bet—that he can win by going full MAGA.
He has just jumped in the deep end of the Republican primary, and it looks like the water is cold. He may sink or he may swim, but one thing is for sure: Trump will be throwing him bricks.