David Brooks: How Trump and DeSantis could both lose

Republican presidential contest should be between populists and conservatives.

(Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Photograph by Mark Makela | The New York Times)

There are two different narratives running through the Republican Party right now. The first is the Trumpian populist narrative we’re all familiar with: American carnage … the elites have betrayed us … the left is destroying us … I am your retribution.

On the other hand, Republican governors from places like Georgia, Virginia and New Hampshire often have a different story to tell. They are running growing, prospering states. (Seven of the 10 fastest growing states have Republican governors while 8 of the 10 fastest shrinking states have Democratic governors.)

So their stories are not about the left behind; they can tell stories about the places people are leaving for. Their most appealing narrative is: Jobs and people are coming to us, we’ve got the better model, we’re providing businesslike leadership to keep it going.

These different narratives yield different political messages. The bellicose populists put culture war issues front and center. The conservative governors certainly play the values card, especially when schools try to usurp the role of parents, but they are strongest when emphasizing pocketbook issues and quality of life issues.

Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, is making Georgia a hub for green manufacturing, attracting immense investments in electric vehicle technologies. In his inaugural address he vowed to make Georgia “the electric mobility capital of America.” As Alexander Burns noted in Politico, Kemp doesn’t sell this as climate change activism; it’s jobs and prosperity.

The two narratives also produce radically different emotional vibes. The Donald Trump/Tucker Carlson orbit is rife with indignation and fury. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin and the previous Arizona governor, Doug Ducey, are warm, upbeat people who actually enjoy their fellow humans.

The former resemble the combative populism of Huey Long; the latter are more likely to reflect the optimism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If American politics worked as it should, then the Republican primaries would be contests between these two different narratives and governing styles — between populism and conservatism.

But that’s not happening so far. The first reason is that Trump’s supporters are so many and so loyal, and his political style is so brutal, he may be deterring governors from entering the campaign. My educated guess is that Youngkin will not run for president in 2024; he wants to focus on Virginia. And Kemp may not, either. Kemp has taken on Trump in the past, but who wants to get into a gutter brawl with a front-runner when you already have a fantastic job governing the state you love? It could be that the GOP presidential field will be much smaller than many of us thought a couple of months ago.

The second reason we’re not seeing the two narratives face off is Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor should be the ultimate optimistic, businesslike conservative. His state is growing faster than any other in the country. But instead, he’s running as a dour, humorless culture war populist — presumably because that’s what he is.

So right now the GOP has two leading candidates with similar views, and the same ever-present anti-woke combativeness. The race is between populist Tweedledum and populist Tweedledee.

The conventional wisdom is that it will stay that way — but maybe not. At this point in earlier election cycles, Jeb Bush, Rudy Giuliani, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee were doing well in their polls. None became the nominee.

Furthermore, the conservative managerial wing of the party is not some small offshoot of the Tucker Carlson universe. In 2022, the normies did much better than the populists. Look at Gov. Mike DeWine’s landslide win in Ohio. Millions and millions of Republicans are voting for these people.

In Georgia Kemp took on Trump about the Big Lie and cruised to victory. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report has pointed out, Kemp had almost 90% approval among his state’s Republican voters in a January poll, whereas Trump’s favorability rating was nearly 20 points lower among those voters. Kemp’s overall approval rating among Georgia voters was a whopping 62%, including 34% of Democrats. Trump’s favorability rating was a pathetic 38% in this swing state.

The Republican donor class is mobilizing to try to prevent a Trump nomination, and DeSantis is overpriced.

Do we really think a guy with a small, insular circle of advisers and limited personal skills is going to do well in the intimate contests in Iowa and New Hampshire? As voters focus on the economy, DeSantis massively erred in playing culture war issues so hard.

The conclusion I draw is that the Trump-DeSantis duopoly is unstable and represents a wing of the party many people are getting sick of.

What does that mean? Maybe somebody like Kemp is coaxed into running. Maybe eyes turn to Tim Scott, an effective, optimistic senator from South Carolina. Maybe the former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie enters the race and takes a sledgehammer to Trump in a way that doesn’t help his own candidacy but shakes up the status quo.

The elemental truth is that the Republican Party is like a baseball team that has tremendous talent in the minor leagues and a star pitcher who can’t throw strikes or do his job. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a change.

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

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.