On what could just as easily have been a presidential debate stage, an alternate future seemed visible as two champions clashed over policy, politics, and competing visions of the national good. Had some things been different, the prize might have been the White House.
But the Democrat, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, took every opportunity to remind the Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, that the debate was only an exhibition.
“One thing we have in common,” Newsom said dismissing suggestions he harbored White House ambitions and taking a dig at DeSantis, “is that neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”
The line was an attempt to return the contest to reality. DeSantis is a declared presidential candidate; despite speculation to the contrary, Newsom is not. They were there at the invitation of Fox News’ Sean Hannity for a “Great Red vs. Blue State Debate,” and while they may never come crossways again, they demonstrated enough shared antipathy during the 90-minute melee to last a lifetime.
Newsom insisted he was only there to defend deep blue California and “to tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record.” Regardless, he repeatedly recycled Trump’s attacks on DeSantis, taunted him for how far he has fallen behind in the polls, and even sarcastically urged him to make way for Nikki Haley.
DeSantis gave every bit as good as he got, roughing up Biden’s on-stage stand-in and taking every opportunity to demonstrate to Republicans how the nation’s future could look like deep red Florida if only they’d reward him instead of Trump with the nomination.
“I was talking to a fella who had made the move to Florida from California, and he was telling me about how much better governed it is, better budget, all this stuff,” DeSantis recalled. “And then he said, ‘Oh, and I’m Gavin Newsom’s father-in-law.’”
But the governor across from him was not the ultimate target. Instead, DeSantis sought to nationalize the debate at every step. “He thinks Biden and Harris have done a great job,” the Republican said of the Democrat. “He thinks the economy is working because of their policies for Americans, and they are not. And so, what California represents is the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids.”
It was a rare glimpse of the best the two parties may have in what could be described as the “under 60” category. DeSantis trails Trump by more than 45 points in the RealClearPolitics Average, and he desperately needs a win. Newsom has developed a national profile that at times threatens to overshadow Biden, and he had an opportunity Thursday to serve as a loyal foot soldier a year ahead of the next election.
One undeniable result: The California Democrat cast his lot with the unpopular president.
Newsom repeatedly defended the president on policy and personal grounds, attempting to refute criticism that Biden is too old to be commander in chief and suffers from cognitive decline. “I will take Joe Biden at 100 vs. Ron DeSantis any day of the week at any age,” he said.
Others, like David Axelrod, have publicly said Democrats would be “wise” to seek a new champion. The former top aide to Obama and longtime Democratic strategist warned earlier this month that Biden’s “age issue” was consistently a problem in polling. Newsom slammed the door on that suggestion.
“It’s not even optional,” the governor said. “He’s doing fantastically.” Notably, Newsom also took care to praise his party’s No 2. “I appreciate and respect the work the president is doing,” he said, then quickly acknowledging Vice President Kamala Harris, whom the party would need to push aside in order for Newsom to accept the nomination. “It’s the Biden-Harris campaign and team. So absolutely, unequivocally, [I] would be continuing to support their efforts.”
Asked what grade they would give him, Newsom said Biden deserved an “A” and DeSantis replied “F.” The grading exercise was predictable. The contrast of visions, instructive. California and Florida, the largest and third-largest states by population, are diametrically opposed in their governance. At times, they even lend themselves to one-to-one comparisons.
DeSantis seized on the story of Disney, inviting a comparison of how Disneyland on the West Coast and Disney World in the East fared during the pandemic. “I had Disney open during COVID, and we made them a fortune, and we saved a lot of jobs,” he said. “You had Disney closed inexplicably for over a year. You are not following science. You were a lockdown governor.”
“You did a lot of damage to your people,” he added. “You had more kids locked out of school for a longer period of time in California than anywhere else in the country.”
Newsom had previously mocked DeSantis for his war with that corporation over its opposition to a parental rights bill. “Ask the folks at Disney about freedom and free enterprise,” he said at one point. But when challenged about COVID, he sidestepped Mickey Mouse and instead said DeSantis “followed science” and “followed” the directions of Anthony Fauci.
The former White House medical advisor is beloved by the left and loathed by the right, and the Newsom rejoinder was an attempt to charge DeSantis with hypocrisy.
“Let’s talk about your record on COVID,” he said. “You passed an emergency declaration before the state of California did. You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants. It’s a fact. You had quarantines, you had checkpoints all over the state of Florida.” Only later, he alleged, when DeSantis envisioned his own presidency, did the Republican change course and court “the fringe” of his party.
Newsom was one of the first governors to issue an emergency “stay-at-home” order in March 2020. DeSantis was one of the first to reopen schools later that summer. Hannity, teeing up the conflict, noted that according to federal data, the two states suffered similar death rates from the COVID-19 virus.
“He led the country in school closures, locking kids out of school while he had his own kids in private school,” DeSantis argued, firing back a charge of hypocrisy.
DeSantis, however, failed to hit Newsom on one of the worst COVID records: allegations that the governor picked winners and losers, deeming some businesses and nonprofits essential while providing lockdown carve-outs to others. The fact that Hollywood studios were allowed to remain open while churches were not went unmentioned.
Another vulnerability that went unaddressed: the backlog of federal unemployment funds overseen by Newsom. The state’s Employment Development Department, tasked with doling out unemployment payments, was quickly overrun, with 99% of calls to the agency going unanswered in 2020. As much as $31 billion was lost in fraudulent claims, meanwhile, including payments to nearly 35,000 inmates of state prisons.
Thursday saw the current election cycle’s first face-to-face exchange between the parties, and it differed in another way from the ongoing Republican debates. DeSantis brought props. During a discussion on LBGTQ+ curriculum, the Florida governor held up a copy of “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic book depicting sex acts between minors. He claimed the book, which is banned in Florida, was taught to children in California schools.
“This is pornography. It’s cartoons aimed at children, and it’s wrong. This should not be in schools,” DeSantis said holding the book aloft. “Some of it is blocked out. You would not probably be able to put this on air.”
Newsom simply denied that sex education is taught until middle school across his state and accused DeSantis of going on a “book-ban binge.” He added, “I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with, Ron.”
But Newsom has personally threatened one school district directly with a $1.5 million fine for rejecting a 4th-grade curriculum that included a biography of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978.
More than curriculum, DeSantis said that California allowed minors to obtain puberty blockers and sex change operations without a guardian’s consent. “How in the heck is that honoring parents’ rights,” he argued, “when you’re bringing people from out of state to go around their parents’ backs and get life-altering surgeries?”
“Where is your decency, humanity, and grace?” Newsom replied as the two men talked over one another and Hannity interjected.
Under Newsom’s state education department, all teachers and public-school personnel are barred from notifying parents if their students request to identify as a different gender or to use a restroom or sporting facility of another gender. Parental rights groups have cried foul, accusing the administration of endangering children. Newsom’s administration has responded with lawsuits and civil rights investigations of the few school boards that have rejected that policy.
Another clash came over homelessness. Again, DeSantis brought a prop.
Newsom argued that the issue goes back decades. “The difference is I’m the first governor in California history to take this head on,” he said. “We are investing more resources, more accountability, we’ve gotten 68,000 people off the streets. Close to 6,000 encampments we’ve gotten off the streets. We’ve also invested unprecedented resources in reforming our behavioral health system. Ron has literally the worst mental health system in America. Forgive me, outside of Mississippi and Texas.”
At this, the Florida governor held up a map with brown splotches across the page. The data had come from an app, DeSantis said, “where they plot the human feces that are found on the streets of San Francisco.” It was more evidence, he argued, of irresponsible decline.
“You see how almost the whole thing is covered because that is what has happened in one of the previous greatest cities this country has ever had,” he said as Newsom smirked. Prior to serving as lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2018, Newsom served as mayor of San Francisco.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, despite the governor’s efforts, the state’s homeless population has increased by 32% over the last 10 years, and 6% between 2020 and 2022.
Neither of the debaters shrank from the unorthodox contest, and both seemed eager to tack on additional time as Hannity took the broadcast into its final break. After the commercial, however, the governors were gone. Hannity explained that they had separate schedules to keep.