Two new Republican challengers are set to enter the scramble for the party’s presidential nomination this week: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. DeSantis has been a punching bag for former President Donald Trump for months now in a way that feels like retribution for DeSantis getting too much good press from early polling last year. And in a new ad released Friday, we got a taste of how weird the run-up to the Republican National Convention will be.
DeSantis has gotten several nicknames from Trump, including the clunky “Ron DeSanctimonious.” Nicknaming is usually a tried-and-true bullying tactic for Trump — see classics of the genre like “Little Marco” and “Low Energy Jeb” — but none of them have seemed to stick to DeSantis. I can only assume a late-night round of riffing at Mar-a-Lago gave us the newest iteration featured in Friday’s ad: “Ron DeSales Tax.”
Set to the tune of “Old MacDonald,” the ad hits DeSantis for supporting a national sales tax while in Congress. It’s the second such ad in as many weeks to focus on the issue, accurately noting that the middle class would feel the brunt of the 23% tax rate that it would instill. And it feels particularly gleeful in torching what was once far-right orthodoxy. Honestly, if you strip out the reference to “Biden’s inflation,” it could have been the masterwork of any Democratic campaign in a swing district.
The Fair Tax Act of 2015, which DeSantis co-sponsored, would have levied that 23% sales tax as a replacement for “the current income and corporate income tax, employment and self-employment taxes, and estate and gift taxes.” The bill also would have blocked all funding to the IRS after 2019 and, weirdly enough, canceled itself if the 16th Amendment, which first authorized an income tax, wasn’t repealed within seven years of the bill becoming law.
In a pre-Trump world, that was absolutely the kind of nutty tax policy that was the provenance of the Freedom Caucus and members of the tea party movement. Looking at the co-sponsor list of the Fair Tax Act is like taking a peek at the members who would become the biggest supporters of the MAGA movement in Congress, among them several who would later go on to serve in the Trump administration: Mike Pompeo, who declined his own run at the White House in April, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
It’s striking that this is what amounts to a policy debate in the GOP these days.
A pro-DeSantis super PAC hit back at last week’s ad with a video showing Trump supporting the fair tax and accused Trump of attacking DeSantis from the left. And when you stop to think about it, they’re right in a sense. Yes, Trump uses DeSantis’ support of the fair tax to tout the biggest legislative achievement of his term, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Nothing about that bill was particularly progressive, and the tax cuts to the wealthy have blown a hole in the budget that has yet to be alleviated. But the main line of attack in both ads is that the fair tax would have been a regressive burden on the middle and lower classes, which is entirely correct and a point that’s been made by several moderate and left-leaning economists and analysts.
If the main defense from DeSantis’ team is “Well, you supported it, too,” that doesn’t exactly signal that he still believes it’s a good idea. But amusingly enough, the fair tax is still being supported by many of the pro-MAGA members remaining in the House. A vote on the provision was one of the many concessions that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made to secure his job in January, even as he has said that he doesn’t support the measure. Democrats have been more than happy to hammer their Republican counterparts with this fact, placing them in the same policy camp as Trump.
It’s striking that this is what amounts to a policy debate in the GOP these days. It also serves as a reminder of how little Trump cares about conservative ideology that extends beyond his own brand of populism. On almost every other issue that will define the coming primary season — like “critical race theory” in schools, transgender rights and the war on “woke” in general — Trump and DeSantis will be leading the way in a sprint to the right. But when it comes to pocketbook issues, Trump is clearly willing to use whatever stick he can to hit his competitors, even if it temporarily makes him sound like a Democrat.