As Nicole LaFond explains in today’s Morning Memo (David Kurtz is on vacation), Ron DeSantis has got his first big fumble in his presidential roll out. He staked out an aggressively anti-Ukraine position on the conflict and American involvement in that conflict, going as far as to label it a “territorial dispute” and suggest no real U.S. interests at stake. This is in line with most Republicans in the Trump wing of the party and not surprising. But he got major pushback from a number of Senate Republicans and GOP foreign policy hands. So he shifted gears, now saying that the Russian invasion is really pretty bad after all, identifying Putin as a “war criminal” who must be “held accountable.” As Nicole notes, this is grist for Trump’s virtuoso taunting and pillorying. He commits the ultimate sin in the Trump GOP — admitting error, retreating rather than going on the offensive. Trump can do that. Because he’s Trump. But no one else can.
There’s another dimension to this which, again, points to a key DeSantis weakness. It’s basically a box-checking candidacy. He’s methodically aligned himself with the core Trump GOP positions and done Trump better by making law and policy on key Trumpian issues like “parental rights,” hostility to LGBTQ communities, and hostility to COVID-era mitigation efforts. That’s a strong argument for the nomination. He didn’t just talk. He changed policy and law and then got reelected by a genuinely overwhelming margin.
But it’s not really DeSantis’ agenda. It’s the composite GOP agenda circa 2021/2022. He’s not the one defining any of it. He’s following rather than leading. So if the position he’s managing to isn’t crystal clear or it’s disputed or evolving you can have missteps like this. “Tell me what position you want me to have and I’ll enforce it” is basically DeSantis’s pitch to the GOP. Not having any actual positions himself, especially on something like Ukraine where he’s just followed the GOP flavor of the moment, leaves him vulnerable to this.
Don’t get me wrong. A cookie-cutter campaign can work. Lots of campaigns are like that. But he’s in a battle with a rival who decides his positions by instinct and in a party that largely defines correct policy by whatever Donald Trump decides the policy should be. That’s a vulnerability.