Next GOP Debate Is the Face-Off DeSantis Craves—With the Wrong Opponent

Next GOP Debate Is the Face-Off DeSantis Craves—With the Wrong Opponent

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Trump sat on the members-only balcony of his Mar-a-Lago estate in 2020, musing to a small coterie of advisers about his race for re-election, both there in Florida and nationally. Eventually, the conversation wandered to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, to many on that terrace’s mind, owed his whole identity to Trump. After all, without Trump’s help, DeSantis would have still been a back-bencher in the House in 2018, rather than becoming the GOP nominee for Governor. The White House bookers had helped line up plenty of prime Fox News hits for DeSantis; he didn’t quite get the whole MAGA ethos but he could parrot the talking points just fine. And DeSantis’ popularity those days would have been tissue-paper-thin without having Trump as a backyard constituent.

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As the sun set, it quickly became apparent that Trump felt insufficiently appreciated. “He is a good Governor and a tough cookie,” Trump said of DeSantis, perceived still as his creation. “But some people are just not that grateful.”

Though DeSantis wasn’t there for the scene described in a book released Tuesday from NBC News senior reporter Matt Dixon on Trump and DeSantis, you could imagine how the acerbic Florida Governor would have responded. The inability of these two Florida Men to recognize how they both could accomplish more as allies than bitter rivals is hard to miss in Dixon’s Swamp Monsters: Trump vs. DeSantis―the Greatest Show on Earth (or at Least in Florida). While the Trump-DeSantis clash we are currently watching is about so much more than the nominating fight that’s about to start next week in Iowa, Dixon smartly frames the rivalry as a pendulum of the modern Republican Party, in which the MAGA movement’s durability and its reliance on Trump as an animating force nationally is at stake.

It’s also at the heart of DeSantis’ stumbling bid for President. And in Wednesday’s fifth Republican debate, the last before Monday’s Iowa caucus, DeSantis will finally get the one-on-one debate he’s been craving for ages—but with the wrong rival facing him. Trump, once again, plans to stay away and do his own counterprogramming on Fox News, leaving DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as the only ones engaging directly with one another.

While polling in the early-nominating states has consistently shown Trump ahead for almost a year, it has historically proven open to last-minute changes. It’s why DeSantis, Haley, and tech investor Vivek Ramaswamy (who didn’t qualify for the debate stage) are rushing all over Iowa. Similarly, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is flooding New Hampshire, where he is betting his explicitly anti-Trump message might find a footing. (Christie also got shut out of Wednesday’s debate in Iowa, a state that has not been his place of comfort.)

Even if they aren’t sharing a stage, Trump and DeSantis have a mutual distrust and jealousy of each other, and it goes back years. While Dixon’s book purports to be about a feud between two Floridians, it’s actually more in keeping with other political anthropologies of specific conditions native to a place. To wit, former TIME journalist Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise is a good foundation for Dixon’s observations, and Dixon’s reporting reminds me of one my favorite analogies for describing the state’s fantasy-like potential for conservatives: “Disney World for Republicans,” as one senior unaligned strategist puts it, where anything is possible. And during the Covid-19 lockdowns, Florida stood as a place where groups could gather without masks or social distancing; thus began The Free State of Florida myth at the center of DeSantis’ thesis that made his current—and struggling—campaign possible.

Trump has never been one to show grace or share a spotlight, despite eventually adopting some of DeSantis’ policies as his own. Hence, Trump’s less-than-helpful posture even as DeSantis headed into a resounding victory in 2022. DeSantis ended his easier-than-it-should-have-been re-election campaign with more cash in the bank than any other Governor. His allies in a very transactional Florida lined up to bankroll his inauguration and nascent super PAC as an obvious alternative to Trump, who was facing legal woes aplenty. 

As Trump skipped all of the earlier debate, both men have circled each other from afar, with Trump hurling nicknames and childish pluck and DeSantis continuing to punch laterally at the likes of Haley and Ramaswamy. At this point, Trump and DeSantis are unlikely to collide in a meaningful way anytime soon, as the former President is likely coasting to a third nomination in eight years, and the Florida governor is term-limited and looking at his next act. 

None of this matters, however, outside of the urgent and inconvenient timeline of the next few weeks. Republicans need to pick a nominee to face the likely renomination of Joe Biden. Absent a game-changing event, that’s likely to be Trump. As much as DeSantis and Haley are trying to derail that reality, they don’t have the numbers right now, and no one has ever accused Trump of letting a grudge go to ground.

Still, reading Swamp Monsters is an exercise in fancy. Understanding the mutual contempt between DeSantis and Trump, one can’t help but imagine the bitter one upmanship that could have erupted from each if ever they found themselves in close quarters. If only…

Already, there have been flashes of such blends of insecurity and arrogance from DeSantis, chiefly when he shared the stage for a kind of fan-fic-version of a general-election debate with his California counterpart, Gov. Gavin Newsom. That only-on-Fox News carnival may have been DeSantis’ strongest debate showing of the cycle—on a stage where there were minimal stakes for dinging anyone he actually needs to best in the current cycle.Ultimately, Dixon employs Trump and DeSantis to describe a Republican Party that is simultaneously yearning for too many things at once: conservative values, global engagement, and the belief in the power of limited government, alongside a burn-it-downnihilism that has come to be a proxy for Trumpism. Given that Trump won’t deign to debate the merits of that dichotomy as he is heads-and-shoulders above his closest rivals in the early nominating states, it is tempting to say which has won. Those early states, though, have a pluck that makes them fascinating to watch. And, for the moment, it seems like two tracks of the same rollercoaster launched from different platforms. They may yet intercept. After all, hubris has a way of penalizing those who believe that their destinies are preordained.

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