President Biden and former President Trump have found at least one common foe: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Biden traveled to DeSantis’s home state of Florida on Thursday, just two days after his State of the Union address.
There, the president criticized DeSantis for the governor’s failure to expand Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.
Biden asserted that more than 1.1 million lower-income Floridians would be eligible for Medicaid if DeSantis took that step, adding, “This isn’t calculus.”
En route to Florida on Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre poked fun at DeSantis for his bitter battle with the Walt Disney Company. The feud was first sparked by a DeSantis-backed bill restricting the teaching of sexuality in schools, but it has continued to intensify.
“I certainly would not get into a fight with Mickey Mouse,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “I don’t think that would be the thing that I would be doing.”
Trump, as is his habit, has been even more confrontational — and personal.
Earlier this week, Trump twice promoted social media posts implying that DeSantis had partied with underage students years ago during his brief time as a high school teacher.
The original poster in one of those instances resurfaced an old picture and accused DeSantis of “grooming high school girls with alcohol.”
To this, Trump appended the comment, “That’s not Ron, is it? He would never do such a thing!”
Those actions drew a rare DeSantis jab back at Trump.
“I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” the Florida governor said at a Wednesday news conference.
The attacks from Biden and Trump are, on one level, a testament to the Florida governor’s strength if and when he enters the 2024 presidential race.
It is widely expected that he will do so, though such an announcement may not come until after the Florida legislature ends its session in May. DeSantis’s team is reported to be hiring in advance of a White House bid.
There is no real question that DeSantis is Trump’s most serious rival for the GOP nomination at this point. The reality has been reflected in poll after poll.
An Economist/YouGov survey released Wednesday showed Trump with 42 percent support among Republicans and DeSantis with 32 percent.
No other candidate reached double figures. Former Vice President Mike Pence was in third place with 8 percent and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who is all but certain to announce her campaign next week, came fourth with 5 percent.
Trump has been increasingly eager to take DeSantis on directly.
The 45th president told reporters late last month that DeSantis and his team were “trying to rewrite history” when it came to Florida’s record on COVID-19.
DeSantis has become fiercely critical of COVID restrictions but he also approved a lockdown in Florida at the height of the pandemic, as Trump noted.
Trump also contended, as he has done in the past, that his own support was pivotal in getting DeSantis elected as Florida’s governor in the first place, in 2018. If DeSantis now runs against him, Trump said he would “consider that very disloyal.”
Trump has shown from the start of his political career that he enjoys igniting and intensifying feuds. A battle with DeSantis, if it happens, will likely be especially fierce.
“Trump does best and is most effective when he has an opponent,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “In this case, we don’t really know yet if DeSantis runs or not. So Trump has to create an opponent in DeSantis.”
Heye argued that on one hand this could be a challenge, since DeSantis is beloved by the populist-right base and is less easy to vilify with those voters than a more moderate figure would be.
That said, DeSantis faces challenges too. Getting past Trump at all will be a formidable task — and it will likely be made more difficult the more candidates get into the race.
“He still has to go out and earn it. This won’t he handed to him,” Heye said. “And those other people who are running are not about to roll over just because he is in the race.”
From the Democratic perspective, strategist Mark Longabaugh also hit a note of skepticism about DeSantis, arguing that his public persona is “brittle” and questioning whether he would live up to the hype.
Longabaugh pointed to past conservative Republicans whose candidacies were the subject of early excitement but fell flat.
He cited then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012.
Biden and his party also believe they have an inviting target in terms of DeSantis’s embrace of hot-button social issues.
After DeSantis and his administration came out against an Advanced Placement course in African-American history last month, Jean-Pierre told reporters at a White House briefing that the decision was “incomprehensible”— and that the “study of Black Americas” itself was something that DeSantis “wants to block.”
Longabaugh, for his part, questioned whether DeSantis’s views on such topics really had “a broad constituency” of support.
There is an easy counter-argument for DeSantis to make, of course. He won re-election in Florida — a battleground state until recently — by almost 20 points in November.
Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at George Washington University, cautioned that “Democrats are having a difficult time right now trying to figure out how they counter the culture war arguments” coming from the GOP.
Either way, both Biden and Trump have reason to fear DeSantis.
And that’s one reason why the knives are being sharpened so early.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.