What Happened to That DeSantis–Newsom Debate?

DeSantis and Newsom sitting in a boxing ring with boxing gloves on; both have bruises.
Ouch. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies, Gearstd/iStock/Getty Images Plus, MariaPaulaCrisci/iStock/Getty Images Plus, SanneBerg/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Prudencio Alvarez/Getty Images Plus, and Gearstd/Getty Images Plus.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Remember this summer when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to debate? This was sure to be must-see TV. Two guys who really wanted to be president, both of them very much under 80, squaring up. For those who hadn’t yet accepted that the 2024 presidential election would be a Biden-Trump redux, this looked like the very near future of American politics, two heavyweight rising stars, leaders of large states, R and D, an undercard in name only.

Now it’s looking increasingly unlikely that that debate will happen at all. In a recent appearance on Meet the Press, Newsom told host Chuck Todd that the debate is still in the works but mired in a disagreement over a “venue issue.” “They wanted thousands of people and make it a performance. I wasn’t interested in that. We were pretty clear on that. And so I think we’re getting closer,” Newsom said.

But logistics are the least of their problems. Since the moment this idea was announced in August, things have not gone according to plan for either man. With Trump and Biden already looking like locks for presidential renominations, DeSantis and Newsom haven’t merely been put on ice; each has spent the intervening months spoiling their reputation with odd antics, their national appeal somehow fading faster than even the sundowning octogenarians at their respective parties’ helms. Both have filled their second and final gubernatorial terms with strange vanity projects and ill-advised public comments, accomplishing less and less with the mandate voters in each of their states gave them not long ago.

DeSantis’ falloff is well documented. It’s not just his astonishingly off-putting trailside manner. He’s blown through a startling amount of campaign cash, worn out the backing of what was an exhaustive-depth chart of GOP megadonors, and somehow turned the opportunity of his chief rival’s multiple federal indictments into a crushing blow for his own chances. He has nearly been passed up by Vivek Ramaswamy in national polls.

It has become clear that DeSantis’ vengeful conservatism, part Trumpism but with more ire for teachers and librarians and LGBTQ+ people in the Sunshine State, is not the future of the party. If anything, DeSantis’ frenzy of probably unconstitutional anti-choice, anti-education, punitive politics has been exposed as freakish and off-putting even to Republicans, who are rejecting him roundly. The fear of independents or Democrats outside of Florida falling under his sway seems legitimately laughable, even compared to where he was two months ago.

After his first Republican debate performance, where he suffered all the disadvantages of front-runner status with attacks from the field, but, of course, was very much not the front-runner, it’s unclear why DeSantis’ team would want to march him out to the dais for another round, this time with Newsom. Even a best-case scenario would have him taking hits, this time from the left—the direction from which Trump is already hitting him—and absorbing unnecessary blows his Republican opponents are avoiding. Worse still is the prospective visual of the 5-foot-something DeSantis in his heeled boots standing alongside the 6-foot-3 governor of California.

Newsom hasn’t been the face of an embarrassing campaign meltdown this year, but he hasn’t exactly been covering himself in glory, either. The geriatric logjam at the top of the northern wing of the California Democratic Party has continued with Nancy Pelosi choosing to run for reelection and Dianne Feinstein refusing to step down, robbing Newsom of a legacy-making opportunity to have appointed both of the state’s senators. This would obviously not be as desirable as winning one of those roles himself, but it’d be better than nothing. Despite her obvious and well-catalogued deficiencies, Kamala Harris remains entrenched in her vice presidency, and is thus in front of Newsom in the California Democratic line as well.

Arguably, since his election as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, and most certainly since he won the state’s top office in 2018, Newsom has been a rising star, a much-talked-about presidential contender who looked to have timing on his side as the old guard aged out. When he sat out the 2020 primary race, it seemed like it was still only a one-term setback.

Now, he has effectively been pulled off even the shadow campaign trail for 2024. But instead of focusing on legacy policy achievements to burnish his résumé for 2028, Newsom has instead committed himself to confounding, reactionary, and probably unconstitutional policymaking of his own, a series of descriptors one might even call DeSantis-esque for short.

Last week, Newsom announced that the state will intervene in a recent federal case over whether the city of San Francisco can sweep homeless encampments without providing more available shelter beds. The governor been happy to slap his smiling image on this campaign, personally involving himself in “cleanup” efforts. But the federal government has not smiled upon what homeless rights advocates have called a cruel and illegal process—the city has also been throwing out personal belongings found in encampments, including medication and cellphones—and U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu granted an injunction against the process, bringing it to a halt until the city can actually point to available shelter for the homeless.

Newsom responded to that decision with scathing remarks, calling the ruling a “perverse interpretation” of the law and announcing that he would commit the full legal force of the state to opposing the decision, filing an amicus brief on behalf of the approach to allow it to continue. Newsom said he hoped his office’s intervention would push the issue into the outstretched arms of the Republican judicial supermajority on the Supreme Court, whose penchant for cruel and conservative decision-making might greenlight his preferred policy. “I hope this goes to the Supreme Court,” Newsom said. “And that’s a hell of a statement coming from a progressive Democrat.”

Newsom has also announced a new tough-on-crime initiative, announcing the state’s largest-ever commitment to combating retail theft, which will cost a whopping $267 million and involve 55 law enforcement agencies. “When shameless criminals walk out of stores with stolen goods, they’ll walk straight into jail cells,” Newsom said in a statement.

California has struggled with a slight increase in violent crime—and a huge increase in fear of crime, particularly in Northern California; that crime panic helped oust San Francisco’s reform District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall campaign, which predictably has done nothing to reverse those trends in the city. Simultaneously, conservative media and business groups have made a huge effort to convince the public of a shoplifting crime wave. But as NBC Bay Area reporter Velena Jones noted, Oakland, at the epicenter of this supposed spree, with a reformist district attorney to boot, has seen commercial burglaries increase just 7 percent from this time last year. In a January earnings call, Walgreens CFO James Kehoe admitted to investors that “maybe we cried too much last year” about retail theft.

Newsom has also trotted out new tough talk on drug dealing, doubling the number of state police officers in San Francisco, a confounding approach that seems to suggest a return to war-on-drugs, 1980s-style policy. All of which has the governor looking like the newest in a long line of Democrats self-styling as tough on crime, which continues to be a losing position for non-Republicans running for office.

Newsom built up an impressive track record in his first term and a half, and is certainly the state’s best governor in recent memory; he can and may still sign a number of consequential pieces of legislation that are currently sitting on his desk that would represent meaningful changes on everything from pollution to wages to gun control and more. But compared to the breakthrough legislative sessions overseen by Democratic governors in Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, all with much smaller Democratic majorities, those accomplishments seem less Herculean. There’s a reason that conversations regarding the future of the Democratic Party are now focused on a bunch of governors from the upper Midwest and make scant mention of the Californian.

So the pay-per-view-style showdown promised between Newsom and DeSantis seems destined to fade away. Possibly the decision lies with Fox, which had planned to host the event. Rupert Murdoch initially proclaimed support for DeSantis, but the network seems to be coming around to the fact that it will be Trump they’re doing ideological programming on behalf of yet again.

All of a sudden, the two governors who once fancied themselves the two poles of American politics seem to be on a very similar trajectory, staring down the possibility of settling for lower office or hoping instead for a Cabinet appointment from a friendly ex-rival. Would a Hannity-hosted TV special between two guys, both unlikely to ever be president, help ingratiate either one of them? That, I guess, is debatable.