The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

DeSantis can’t wait forever to punch back at Trump

Donald Trump is always on the attack, always raising the stakes — until his opponents can’t take it and fold. Trump has successfully intimidated much of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Now, if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) fails to fight back, he is likely to suffer the same fate.

For a few months, Trump’s attacks seemed to bounce off DeSantis. But Trump is using a “kitchen sink” strategy, throwing everything he can at DeSantis, and he is bound eventually to come up with something that sticks.

The fact is: Negative campaigning works.

Candidates on the attack are usually winning candidates: They set the agenda; they force their opponents to explain themselves. To paraphrase Trump political associate Roger Stone: In politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.  Trump’s success in 2016 was built on this maxim. He threw his opponents on the defensive, and none of them was ever able to regain the initiative.

Thus far, DeSantis has mostly avoided clashing directly with Trump, save for oblique references to Trump’s current losing streak — as opposed to DeSantis’ undefeated record — and vague talk of “accomplishments.” A Republican electorate calloused to Trump’s ranting has not been moved as it was in 2016. But that cannot — and will not — last forever. A constant unanswered barrage will win through attrition.

Trump won’t allow DeSantis — or any opponent — to avoid him. Not only will Trump attack nonstop, he has no boundaries. No rumor, half-truth or conspiracy is out of bounds. Trump will say anything at any time if he thinks it will knock down an opponent. That lack of boundaries has been a major asset for Trump; in 2016, his opponents were often left stammering and stuttering on the debate stage after another over-the-top out-of-bounds broadside.

Trump tends not think ahead. Whatever attack works in the moment, he will use — and will press it as hard as possible if he senses it has traction; healing wounds after the presidential primaries is not part of any Trump calculation. And while that is short-sighted, the presidential nominating process is a short-sighted affair. You can’t become President without winning the nomination, and primary candidates can be laid low at any time. In 2016, Trump eviscerated Jeb Bush with a series of attacks that left Bush stunned and at a loss for any response.

The punditocracy is obsessed with Trump’s seeming hypnotic hold on a significant proportion of the Republican Party. But it is Trump’s aggression and fearlessness that is just as powerful an asset, if not more so. When Trump leaves an opponent confounded and humiliated, nothing can save them. Case in point: Mike Pence.

In 2021, Pence had the chance to grab the mantle of leadership in the Republican Party, but to do so he needed to aggressively present his vision for the GOP and, critically, push back against Trump. That never happened. Trump emasculated Pence with a stream of constant, nasty attacks. Pence took on the role of a human punching bag, meekly absorbing every attack.

Today, Pence is a mere footnote to the 2024 presidential sweepstakes. Once upon a time, in 2020, Pence was nearly as popular as Trump, with an unfavorable rating among Republicans of just 11 percent (Trump: 12 percent) and 17 percent among conservatives (Trump: 18 percent). Flash forward, and Pence’s unfavorable rating has shot up to 35 percent with Republicans and 38 percent with conservatives.

Worse for Pence, his presidential dreams have largely evaporated. In February 2021, right after the Jan. 6 riot, RealClearPolitics tracker showed Pence down to Trump, 18 percent to 42 percent. For the next year, Pence and DeSantis traded second place, all while Trump hammered away at Pence. Now Pence struggles to stay ahead of Nikki Haley and is well behind DeSantis. He hasn’t hit 10 percent since August and has been as low as 4 percent.

DeSantis momentum at risk

Just as Pence’s tepid response to Trump wrecked his chances, so too could DeSantis’s reticence to fight back wreck his. In and of itself, failure by a candidate to respond to aggression with aggression is widely seen as a sign of weakness. No one wants a punching bag for president.

Unlike 2016, there are plenty of political points on which to attack Trump, from his losing ways to his failure to accomplish lasting results as president. Trump’s incessant whiny victimhood is wearing thin with many voters. More than ever, Trump says and does whatever his instincts tell him, making his rhetoric seem even more erratic. With Republicans more skeptical of Trump this time around, he has less room to get away with his lack of discipline. But that only works if he is held accountable — and, so far, most Republicans appear petrified to do so.

Polling Trump vs. DeSantis head-to-head shows a fairly even race. If DeSantis wants to win, he must break into Trump’s vote — and that can only be done by going on the attack.

That could backfire on DeSantis, of course, just like it has for other Republicans, but he has no choice. All Trump has to do is defend what he has in terms of support and collect a scant few percent of the undecideds and scattered support for the pretenders.

DeSantis cannot wait much longer. If Trump can solidify his support and cast enough doubt on DeSantis, the hill will be too high for the Florida governor to climb. Besides, if DeSantis won’t bite the bullet and go after the man attacking him, then many voters may well conclude that he doesn’t deserve the nomination.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags DeSantis 2024 DeSantis campaign DeSantis v. Trump Donald Trump Jeb Bush Mike Pence Negative campaigning Nikki Haley Opinion poll opinion polling opinion polls Public opinion Roger Stone Ron DeSantis Trump 2024 Trump campaign Trump v. DeSantis

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Regular the hill posts

See all Hill.TV See all Video

main area bottom custom html

MAIN Area bottom

Main area bottom

Top Stories

See All

Most Popular

Load more