During his presidential campaign launch on Twitter, Florida governor Ron DeSantis argued that the United States faces deep challenges—an executive branch unmoored from constitutional limits, families priced out of the middle class, and profound cultural turmoil. As DeSantis put it, “our country’s going in the wrong direction. We see it with our eyes, and we feel it on our bones.”
It is commonplace, even expected, for presidential challengers to invoke some need for change. But DeSantis’s announcement also tapped into the tradition of the insurgency campaign, in which a political change agent charges against a dominant frontrunner. Insurgency campaigns—Ronald Reagan in 1976, Barack Obama in 2008, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016—run against the establishments of both parties. Even though Trump was, in many respects, the frontrunner throughout most of the 2016 primary cycle, he tilted against the consensus of other Republican officials and the GOP’s party machinery.
The insurgency model highlights some possible dynamics of the 2024 presidential cycle. Needing a distinctive ethos, insurgency candidates often combine an alternative approach to politics with substantive policy positions. Obama invoked a generational theme, promising to move past Clintonian triangulation and the conventional Washington politics of compromise. In declaring his presidential run in February 2007, Obama denounced “the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions.” Instead, he promoted a more strenuous politics of conflict. In the 2008 Democratic primary, the Iraq War became one of the key points of leverage for his campaign against Clinton (who had voted as a senator to support the war) and his call for a new paradigm.
As an insurgent candidate in 2016, Trump also used a broader theme to help reorient the Republican Party. “Build the wall,” attacks on multinational trade pacts, and an “America First” foreign policy broke with the bipartisan orthodoxies of the neoliberal era. This distinctive policy approach established an essential political beachhead for Trump. Yet since 2020, the former president has deemphasized policy for his political brand, creating a political opportunity for his rivals.
What could the animating ethos of an insurgent Republican candidacy look like? Neither a Bush restorationist effort nor a Never Trump campaign seems likely to work. A Tea Party insurgency centered on a combination of social conservatism and fiscal austerity might also face an uphill battle, given the past performance of Ted Cruz and the seemingly longshot odds of Mike Pence, should he declare. Meantime, a competent-Trumpism pitch might be another way of saying “heavy metal, only melodious.” Successful insurgency candidates usually don’t market themselves as an updated version of a predecessor, and outrageousness itself is part of the Trump brand.
A more plausible route for an insurgency candidate might be to go beyond Trump: borrowing elements from the Trumpian turn in Republican politics, confronting the obvious weaknesses of Trump’s time as president (the chaos, the broken campaign promises, the constitutional disruption), and adapting to dramatic shifts in American politics since 2016.
Politics has changed since the Trump/Bernie Sanders insurgencies. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as leaders abroad, have increasingly turned to a model of resilience premised on shoring up key strategic industries. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized Western resistance, it has also given a glimpse of a broader geopolitical rebalancing. An increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China aims to challenge the United States’s role in key parts of the infrastructure of globalization. Questions of identity and political belonging have flared up. The American public may also have grown disillusioned with the politics of conflict and come to favor instead some kind of “normalcy” that lessens the fervor of existential political warfare. Poll after poll indicates that American voters would prefer a choice other than Trump or Biden, suggesting a desire for new political blood.
A unifying turn—call it a “we the people” politics—could speak to these disruptions by seeking to reknit civic integrity and institutional credibility. Such a politics could work to strengthen a sense of democratic and local agency by, for example, empowering parents on education and reasserting democratic controls on the administrative state. Such a politics might be wary about corporate concentration and overweening corporate power. But it would also attend to key pocketbook issues, improving economic outcomes for families while confronting key cost burdens.
A politics of some “people” is one of the key tropes of the nation and many democratic theories. “We the people” politics could combine an assertion of democratic sovereignty with a defense of the inherited liberties of the American regime. It would hold that American greatness does not come from tearing down constitutional institutions. Rather than dividing American politics into warring camps, it would find that we are all in the political compact together. This does not mean that political differences cannot exist, but those differences should not obscure deeper civic bonds. The past decade’s politics of division has helped make the government less worthy of the American people and less capable of responding to strategic challenges. The aim of government under this model should be not an absolute devotion to some abstract ideology but a commitment to the citizenry’s flourishing.
Certain (albeit limited) parallels between the shape of the Republican race today and the 2008 Democratic primary present themselves. Throughout 2007, Hillary Clinton was the clear leader in national polls, hovering somewhere in the 40s. Barack Obama hung about 20 points behind her. John Edwards and other candidates were far in the distance.
Today, Donald Trump holds a significant lead in national polls. Like Clinton, he has tried to define himself as the center of his party’s political gravity by rolling out one endorsement after another. And like Obama, Ron DeSantis trails by double digits in most national polls. As with the 2008 Democratic race, most other likely candidates for the Republican nomination remain clustered in the realm of single digits and rounding errors. Even the criticisms of DeSantis from the Trump camp often echo Clintonian attacks on Obama. The junior senator from Illinois was inexperienced; he should wait his turn; someday, he could be a good president—but not this cycle.
In Clinton’s case, seeming political strength masked significant weaknesses. As political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann wrote in Game Change, many top Democrats had reservations about her strength as a candidate. The Obama campaign out-organized Clinton in many key states. His victory in the Iowa caucuses punctured Clinton’s façade of inevitability, and his national numbers shot upward. The 2008 primary was a trench warfare of delegates, but Obama retained an edge throughout much of the struggle and ended up clinching the nomination.
Of course, these comparisons are inexact. Democrats came off a “wave” victory in 2006, so they entered 2008 with the wind at their backs. Senate wins in Virginia, Ohio, and Florida presaged Obama’s victory in those states in 2008. By contrast, Republicans had a very disappointing midterm in 2022. Furthermore, while Hillary Clinton was a relatively unknown quantity as a presidential candidate, Trump enters the 2024 primary not as a senator but as a former president.
Whether or not they harbor presidential ambitions, various Republicans could adopt a “we the people” paradigm. South Carolina senator Tim Scott explicitly invoked “we the people” at his optimistic campaign announcement in May. In DeSantis’s case, his campaign finds itself at the intersection of key political tensions for this model. His national political image has been attached to numerous high-profile cultural controversies. There can be both an opportunity and a risk here. Standing forthrightly to defend a set of values and check the excesses of certain politics of identity can indeed pay political dividends among both Republican Party faithful and swing voters. However, being defined simply as a “culture war” candidate can also limit a presidential campaign. Red-in-tooth-and-claw conflict repels a key portion of the electorate, and an excessive reliance on “triggering” the progressive opposition could hamper the ability to lay out a broader policy vision. Navigating those cultural tensions would require considerable political discipline.
In some ways, DeSantis has tapped into what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has termed a “politics of suspicion,” which doubts the integrity of many institutions. But, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Matthew Continetti has argued, DeSantis’s institutional critique could be a vehicle not for the nullification of institutions but the reform of them. Going beyond suspicion toward the project of institutional reform would seem a key component of a “we the people” vision.
Portions of DeSantis’s record as governor could be compatible with a “we the people” politics. He partnered with Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to exempt various products for small children (such as diapers) from the state sales tax. His administration has promoted incentives for tech and manufacturing. The state legislature has recently passed a bill that dramatically expands school choice. DeSantis campaigned on raising the salaries of government workers—especially teachers and police officers—while asserting democratic oversight over public K-12 education. His Covid policies checked the excesses of medical technocrats and also aimed to ensure that public goods could actually be used by the public.
In a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, DeSantis emphasized many of these themes. He castigated the “culture of losing” in the GOP and implicitly contrasted the discipline of his gubernatorial staff with the West Wing soap opera of the Trump years—points echoed in his presidential announcement on Twitter. While he spoke at Heritage about the need to take bold action, he also celebrated his ability to win big in his reelection: governing well can expand a political coalition. He made much of his opposition to technocrat-approved Covid restrictions but also argued that one of the dangers of the “administrative state” at the moment is that it appeals to a politics of division—that its “power has been weaponized and wielded by one faction of society against other factions of society that it doesn’t like.”
Successful insurgency candidates confront some underlying political frustration. For Obama in 2008, it was the Iraq War. For Trump and Sanders in 2016, it was the costs of the post-2001 iteration of globalization and the broader discrediting of elite institutions. Amid deep structural challenges, U.S. politics today risks being caught in a retaliatory doom loop. Biden adapted some Trumpian themes on trade, infrastructure, and industrial policy, but he has in many respects fully embraced the politics of denunciation. Obama, Trump, and now Biden have all called for destabilizing the American constitutional infrastructure, such as by overturning regular order in the Senate.
Could the American people be open to a candidate who seeks to confront underlying problems rather than simply scapegoating others as the problem? An updated insurgency campaign could incorporate some of the key elements of populist disruption, while moving beyond the deadlock of vitriolic dysfunction.
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