If the early stages have been any indication, the Republican 2024 presidential nomination will be more of a cage match marked by petty personal insults than policy disagreements in the marketplace of ideas.
But former President Donald Trump has found a way to briefly merge the two, forging a rare tool in his arsenal where the proverbial “wedge” in a wedge issue is actual public policy, not just a grievance or shared enemy.
After beating the drum for months that Republicans shouldn’t touch Social Security and Medicare—despite all of his White House budget proposals including cuts to those same programs—Trump has found a way to corner Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the closest thing to a policy difference the 2024 GOP primary might see.
Even though Trump’s track record on protecting entitlement programs is rather shoddy, Republican strategists think he’s set an effective trap for DeSantis before he fully enters the race.
The DeSantis operation is in “a real pickle,” a former senior Trump campaign official and longtime GOP strategist told The Daily Beast, with regard to how the Florida governor addresses this issue. He has to somehow not alienate the MAGA base while also countering Trump attacks over DeSantis’ past votes and policy endorsements as a congressman.
“People forget we’re not in that old-school Reagan era anymore,” the Trump alum continued, adding that the GOP base in this decade cares far less about fiscal conservatism. “The demographic has changed. So no, they don’t give a shit about that anymore,” this official said.
After a Trump-aligned PAC aired an attack ad dubbing the Florida governor “Pudding Fingers”—referring to an anecdote first reported by The Daily Beast—the DeSantis response left Republican observers befuddled.
For how forcefully the Trump PAC tried to tie DeSantis to his past votes on cutting Medicare and Social Security, the return serve from the Florida governor’s backers didn’t strike much fear into MAGA hearts.
The Trump offensive on Medicare and Social Security also has an eye toward the general election, one outside Trump adviser said.
“This is no longer the Bush Republican Party, and that’s a good thing,” the source in contact with Trump said. “We’re never going back. It’s also important to remember Donald Trump brought over almost 20 million two-time Obama voters to the Republican Party, so a very large chunk of the Republican base are populist voters, they’re not the fiscally conservative voters of the past. They care about taking care of their neighbors, they care about taking care of the elderly.”
Trump has already workshopped plenty of material going after DeSantis, from calling him a “lockdown governor” in the early months of the pandemic (long gone are the days when Trump complimented DeSantis for caring “so much about health care” in his reopening of Florida beaches) to describing his early state jaunts as a “taxpayer-funded campaign.” (Trump hosted the RNC for his 2020 re-election campaign at the White House, an unprecedented move for any sitting president that raised concerns among watchdog groups over violating the Hatch Act.)
That’s not to mention the evolution of nicknames, or the former president’s most ruthless and unsubstantiated attacks on Truth Social, where he ominously warned DeSantis may be “unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!).”
So far, save for some sparing jabs—such as when DeSantis said he didn’t “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair, I can’t speak to that”—DeSantis has not matched Trump’s intensity.
Never Back Down, a “draft DeSantis” super PAC that would become the main outside fundraising vehicle once he jumps in, chided the former president for “spending millions” attacking fellow Republicans in an ad airing just two days after the shot across the bow from the MAGA Inc. super PAC. The ad included a brief snippet saying “We’re not gonna mess with Social Security” with a quick cut to Trump saying entitlements would be on the table “at some point.”
“It’s tough in that situation,” another Republican strategist said. “If you look at GOP primary voters, a lot of them are seniors, and talking about cutting a benefit for people who’ve worked really hard who are working class people and need those benefits.”
The GOP strategist, who isn’t affiliated with either candidate at the moment, continued that talking about cutting benefits that older voters have paid into those programs their entire lives was clearly a losing strategy in both the GOP primary and a general election. And both GOP strategists said DeSantis needed to handle the attacks on his past votes more seriously.
“The idea of releasing an ad complaining Trump is being mean to Ron makes Trump look kind of like an alpha,” the 2024 free agent said, adding that the takeaway shouldn’t be “Ron putting ads out there essentially saying, ‘Leave me alone.’”
However, the Trump campaign veteran had hesitations about how effective this Trump offensive could be in the medium and long term.
“It’s a lot harder for him now compared to 2016,” this former senior campaign staffer said. Trump didn’t have a record to defend in that primary, but the DeSantis team has “something they can grab onto and hit right back” in Trump’s White House budget proposals.
“It’s sad to see the former president running a play from the Biden-Pelosi playbook and attacking a fellow Republican with Democrat lies,” Never Back Down Communications Director Erin Perrine said in a statement. “Governor DeSantis has been crystal clear that he will not touch Social Security, while Donald Trump clearly said during his unsuccessful re-election campaign that he would change Social Security.”
It’s true that Trump’s rhetoric rarely matched his White House budget proposals, where he sought to trim Medicare and Social Security. Instead he turned his avowed protection of those programs into a recurring applause line at rallies. Back in February, he told Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) “THERE WILL BE NO CUTS!” in response to the senator’s “sunset plan,” which he later amended to carve out an exception for Social Security and Medicare not expiring every five years.
DeSantis, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015, has traditionally been in the budget hawk school of thought. While in Congress, he supported several Republican Study Committee budget proposals that would have, according to Semafor, “voucherized Medicare for new beneficiaries, slowed Social Security cost of living increases, and raised the retirement age for both programs.”
He also signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never sign any tax increases.
As far as any long standing shift in the GOP’s stance toward entitlement programs potentially resulting from the Trump-DeSantis duel, Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff isn’t holding his breath.
“It’s all a function of politicians going back to Eisenhower of taking money from young people and promising to give them benefits, and keeping that promise off the books,” Kotlikoff said, adding that politicians “don’t give a shit about the next generation compared to the next election.”
While Kotlikoff supports a version of a model introduced in Greece that saved their pension system—where the U.S. government would guarantee at least the principal taxpayers have contributed from their paychecks plus an inflation indexed annuity to meet their basic needs in retirement—he doesn’t see Trump as the savior of Social Security.
“First of all, I don’t think anybody should believe a word Trump says, and I don’t think he has the mental capacity to even discuss the stuff from a budget someone made for him,” the professor said.
For the GOP strategist who worked for Trump, the way DeSantis has been cornered on entitlements is indicative of a broader problem facing his White House ambitions.
“I just don’t know what DeSantis is doing. This anti-woke ESG stuff, it’s not resonating with people. At the end of the day, most people can’t even afford to go to fucking Disney, so why should they give a shit?” the Trump alum said, referring to the governor’s continued beef with the company and its Orlando amusement park, where DeSantis recently floated the idea of building a new state prison next to it.
With worries also spilling out from the donor community—most notably with GOP heavyweight Thomas Peterffy telling the Financial Times he’s putting his plans to back DeSantis “on hold” over “his stance on abortion and book banning”—GOP operatives continue to wonder if DeSantis is surrounded by staffers up to the task of taking on Trump.
The 2024 free agent distilled the issue down to an extended baseball metaphor, as one does in U.S. politics.
“These are people who have not played in the big leagues,” the GOP strategist said of the DeSantis team, with the exception of newly joined Republican strategist Jeff Roe, who crossed the MAGA rubicon to join Never Back Down last month.
“So you’ve brought a bunch of rookie single-A players to a Major League Baseball game, and it’s very easy to talk tough on how you can hit a fastball on Twitter vs. real life,” this strategist said. “Well guess what, their boss is fucking polling closer to Vivek Ramaswamy than Donald Trump right now.”