What is there to say about Thursday night’s much-hyped “debate” between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?
Those who opted to watch the football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks rather than “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” got a more entertaining, less predictable and arguably more relevant contest.
Meanwhile, the masochists who watched two middle-aged politicians throw verbal barbs at each other heard nothing they hadn’t heard before.
Newsom said DeSantis is a bully who picks on his marginalized constituents and should quit his failing quest for the White House. DeSantis accused Newsom of presiding over the decline of California into a dystopia and wanting to bring its ruin to the rest of the nation.
The 90-minute event’s moderator, conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, promised to be neutral, saying “I will not be the partisan,” but repeatedly posed issues rooted in data that disfavored California, obviously trying to put Newsom on the defensive and help DeSantis make his case.
Newsom responded by largely ignoring the issues Hannity posed and instead, attacking DeSantis and using every opportunity to praise President Joe Biden.
“I’m here to tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record,” Newsom declared early in the event.
Odd Three-Way Conversation
It made for an odd three-way conversation as DeSantis, with Hannity’s help, tried to portray Newsom’s California as “the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids,” while Newsom took personal potshots at DeSantis and his flagging presidential campaign and stoutly defended Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The pre-event assumption among the political media was that Newsom, known for his glibness, would clean DeSantis’ clock and Democratic partisans probably believe that he did.
However, DeSantis handled himself pretty well, aided by Hannity’s loaded questions. He was never rattled, hurled as many personal barbs at Newsom as the California governor sent his way and stuck to his game plan of depicting California as a place from which people are rightfully fleeing. He even displayed a map supposedly showing the places in San Francisco where human feces had been deposited.
Newsom’s performance surely won him some brownie points in the White House and advanced his self-appointing role as a Biden surrogate who craves a prominent role in national Democratic Party politics.
“Neither of us will be the nominees of our party in 2024,” Newsom said at one point. But Thursday’s verbal tussle keeps his name alive as a potential Democratic presidential contestant in 2028, regardless of what happens next year. And if Biden is re-elected in 2024, Newsom could be rewarded with some high-profile role after his governorship ends in 2027.
If nothing else, however, the case against California laid out by DeSantis, with Hannity’s help, previewed the issues that could plague Newsom should he, despite his denial of interest, make a White House bid in 2028.
California’s long-standing reputation as a place where the American dream comes true has been sullied in recent years. Its extremely high costs of living, particularly for housing, its high levels of poverty and income disparity and its ever-growing homeless crisis have driven hundreds of thousands of people out of the state.
While he inherited most of the state’s social ills, none is likely to be resolved before his governorship ends and, fairly or not, they would be hung around his neck in a presidential campaign. These days, the outcomes of White House elections depend largely on what happens in a relative handful of swing states whose voters are not likely to embrace the California model.
“California simply has no peers,” Newsom boasted on Thursday. That would be a hard sell in places like Ohio that would decide a 2028 election.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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