David Brooks: Let’s all do the DeSantis shimmy

Florida governor faces a party divided into populists and normie Republicans.

(Butch Dill | AP) Then-President Donald Trump stands behind Ron DeSantis at a 2018 gubernatorial rally in Pensacola, Fla.

I suppose all contemporary young politicians dream of meeting their moment. At the enthusiastic dawn of their politico careers, they entertain a fantasy that some day, as a great historical challenge looms into view, their future selves will rise to the occasion — and masterfully dodge it!

They envision themselves bobbing and weaving, triangulating and feinting — filling the air with meaningless cliches so that no one knows where they stand and no one can hold them accountable. Their political career sails on, soaring upward, their electoral viability unbruised and glorious!

Ron DeSantis is now trying to live out that dream.

There are two dominant views on Ukraine within the Republican Party. The first one, embraced by, say, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, holds that Russia’s assault on Ukraine threatens the liberal world order. Helping the Ukrainians push back is in America’s vital national interest.

The second view, embraced by the populist wing, is that the United States has no vital national interests in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson has said he doesn’t really care what Vladimir Putin does in Ukraine. Donald Trump has suggested that the war will last longer if the United States continues to send aid.

DeSantis has magically cast himself in between these two positions. In the past, DeSantis was tougher on Russia than Trump. In 2017, he noted that Putin “wants to reconstitute the Russian Empire,” and chided Trump for being too soft on Putin, saying that “you’re better off dealing with Putin by being strong.” If Putin thinks he can gain an inch, DeSantis argued, “he’s apt to take a mile.”

But this week DeSantis went on “Fox & Friends,” where great statesmen have always gone to unfurl their foreign policy doctrines, and he feinted in a Trump-like direction.

He said the war wouldn’t have happened if Joe Biden weren’t so weak. He said he didn’t want to give the Ukrainians a “blank check” (as if anyone does). He said Biden should be more concerned with securing the border at home and less concerned with borders far away. He minimized the threat Putin poses to the West, adding, “I don’t think it’s in our interests to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea.”

It was like that Richard Gere character in the musical, “Chicago” — giving them the old razzle-dazzle, even if his dance steps are more plodding. It’s not clear if DeSantis is for more Ukraine aid or not. No one can quite pin him down. Tippity tap. Tappity tip.

This has been DeSantis’ general approach to Trump. He doesn’t want to take on Trump directly, so he shimmies. This month, Trump insinuated that DeSantis behaved inappropriately with high school girls while he was a teacher. Instead of slamming Trump, DeSantis shimmied. Trump calls DeSantis “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.” DeSantis glides blithely by.

The problem with running a campaign in which you are trying to be Trumpy-but-not-Trump is that you’re never your own man. You have to compete with the king without crossing him. You’re always trying to find that magic sweet spot between just-MAGA and plain-crazy.

If he were more of a strategic thinker and less a tactician, I think DeSantis would realize that he’s either going to have to fight Trump directly on some issue or copy him right down the line. And I think he’d realize that he’s already locked himself into a position in which he’s going to have to copy him.

On Ukraine policy, for example, I suspect that DeSantis will soon be enthusiastically parroting the Trump position. I say that because of two interrelated reasons.

First, DeSantis, for better or worse, has hitched his wagon to the populist movement. This movement is now broad and deep in the Republican Party and has deep roots running back through American history. This movement has long been opposed to the cosmopolitan East Coast elites, has long adopted the posture that we need to pull inward and take care of our own, and is now allergic to talk about America being actively involved to preserve a “liberal world order.” This is where populist voters are, and this is where DeSantis, running as a populist, needs to be.

Then there is Tucker Carlson. The DeSantis campaign won’t be able to survive if Carlson and the rest of the right-wing media sphere start blasting him for being a “globalist,” the way Trump already is.

“Globalist” is to foreign policy what “CRT” is to education. No one knows precisely what it means but everybody in MAGA-world knows it’s really bad. DeSantis has to take whatever position will get that label off his back.

This week’s dancing makes me realize DeSantis is in a weaker position than I thought. The GOP is evenly split on foreign policy and significantly split on whether the party should be fiery populist or more conventionally conservative. According to a Pew survey, 40% of Republicans think the United States is giving too much aid to Ukraine, while 41% believe America is giving Ukraine the right amount of aid or not enough. This data illustrates something also evident in the 2022 election results — that while there are a lot of populists in the party, there are still a lot of normie Republicans who are not.

As the campaign wears on, and the debate on Ukraine continues, DeSantis will be condemned to playing Mini-Me to Trump in trying to win that populist 40%. Meanwhile, he’ll be cutting ties to many in the nonpopulist 41%. That will leave room for some normie Republican in the Brian Kemp/Tim Scott mold to rise.

(Nam Y. Huh | AP photo) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.