The tragedy of the Newsom-DeSantis debate

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

ALPHARETTA, Georgia — Before his clash with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Atlanta suburbs late Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom got a passing question from Fox News’ Sean Hannity during a walkthrough at the venue.

“He goes, ‘I don't know how the hell you're gonna be able to talk your way out of the questions I'm gonna ask you. Good Luck!’” Newsom recalled in an interview. “Meaning, ‘How do you defend your state? It's a failed state.’ I think he's honestly intrigued by the notion that it’s even possible.”

Over a 95-minute slugfest, Newsom was forced to dwell longer on those parochial questions than he had expected to. The California Democrat labored to champion his home turf in the grudge match with his Republican nemesis. In between those answers, Newsom stumped for the reelection of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2024 and threw culture war-imbued haymakers at DeSantis.

While the event revealed a new side of Newsom — who’d never participated in such a high-profile debate since he governs a deep-blue state — it also laid bare a country divided not just over partisan politics, but within the parties themselves over Biden and Donald Trump. Indeed, a blaring headline Thursday on the conservative Drudge Report under a graphic of DeSantis and Newsom read, “TONIGHT: THE REAL DEBATE!”

Fox News’ chaotic tussle in Alpharetta was, for the political class, a kind of fantasy for an alternate world many yearn for — a 2000s-era throwback where a raving former president under a legal cloud and out for vengeance isn’t desperately trying to reclaim power, and where Democrats aren’t committed to their standard-bearer despite his old age and poor standing in polls. The tragedy for Newsom and DeSantis is that Thursday evening wasn’t a preview of the future so much as it was a reversion, however brief, to those earlier times.

“Anyone else feel weird about seeing the debate we should have rather than the one we get,” wrote Republican strategist Josh Holmes on X, formerly Twitter. Others on the right offered similar observations. And the presence of Hannity as the moderator — a throwback to a simpler conservative media era of towel-snapping rather than torch-carrying — added to the whole motif.

DeSantis, of course, is running for president, turning in a solid performance against a liberal villain that energized his hard-core supporters even as he struggles to get traction in a race dominated by Trump. Newsom, in an interview with POLITICO hours before the debate started, said among his challenges was not giving his opponents — let alone potential admirers — ammunition to accuse him of undermining Biden. In other words, part of Newsom’s task was to remind people he knew exactly what they were thinking — and to swiftly disabuse them of the false belief he’s running in 2024. He used Biden’s reelection campaign as the basis for his reason for showing up on Fox News. Even when DeSantis tried to provoke him.

“I have to keep reminding myself to say — as he is talking about needles andfeces in San Francisco and [saying] ‘Everyone has already left, and it's a crime-ridden hellhole, and there's not a company left, and it’s the worst unemployment, and the worst homelessness, and the worst housing crisis, and it's just nothing like the good old days of Ronald Reagan’ — that I’m not there running for reelection as governor. I’m not running for president, either.”

“I'm going to defend Biden, for better or worse, rich or poor, ‘til death do me part,” he added, almost as a mantra.

Newsom ended up making his point, and more, in a line that came off as tightly scripted yet nonetheless delightful to his social media boosters. “There's one thing in closing that we have in common, is neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024,” he said during the debate.

DeSantis didn’t bite on that attack but he happily jumped on partisan talking points from the Fox News host. When Hannity outright asserted that Biden is in “significant cognitive decline” — then asked DeSantis whether Biden is experiencing cognitive decline — the governor agreed and said it was a danger to the country.

“He has no business running for president,” DeSantis said of Biden. “And, you know, Gavin Newsom agrees with that. He won't say that. That's why he's running his shadow campaign. He should not be running. He is not up to the job. And it is dangerous for this country.”

Newsom’s alleged shadow run has become a recurring theme on Fox. There’s no equivalent on left-leaning networks. And the main challenger to Biden is little-known Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat who is criticizing his party apparatus for greasing the skids for Biden.

That perhaps has shined more attention on Newsom, who despite avoiding early primary state travel and raising millions of dollars for Biden in 2023 continues to be tagged as a possible challenger.

Newsom told POLITICO that he’d kept in close touch with the White House and Biden reelection campaign advisers. Much of the material they asked him to cover in the DeSantis debate was similar to what he’s been saying in recent months as a surrogate. Before the debate, Newsom said that not sufficiently defending Biden and getting lured into a protracted California versus Florida subnational scramble would have been his biggest failure.

Newsom did get dragged into that discussion, cutting into the time he could have used to further elevate Biden, knock DeSantis, and showcase himself.

The event came at the tail end of a rebound year for Newsom, who struggled during Covid lockdowns, beat back a recall attempt and whose influence in Sacramento is seldomly checked by the Democratic-controlled Legislature as he works to remake social programs around homelessness, mental health and a crippling housing shortage.

The debate that unfolded was unlike anything he’d prepared for. Up until Thursday night, Newsom had been in some multi-candidate events or low-wattage head-to-head matches that didn’t even air on TV. The lack of experience under the klieg lights of prime-time cable TV required what the governor described to POLITICO as a “reprogramming” of his brain.

“I’m a rep guy, not a set piece guy,” Newsom said earlier Thursday. “And I don't have a lot of reps.”

His natural inclination is to refute points with his own facts, to dwell on context, obsess over nuance and prepare for exceedingly long presentations like the ones he gives for the state budget. His intensive prep sessions for the DeSantis event took place over the last week, and Newsom said a top concern was not to come off as combative and obsessed with every detail hurled at him. The goal was to quickly defend himself, and pivot back to attacks on DeSantis.

His smile conveyed trustworthiness on a “subconscious level,” at least according to a body language expert who watched the debate for POLITICO Magazine.

Newsom studied his nemesis’ performances extensively, contending that DeSantis has gotten better over the course of the GOP primary but still was apt to melt down, appear angry or smile insincerely. Newsom pointed to a gubernatorial debate last year with Democrat Charlie Crist where he challenged DeSantis to say he would serve the full, four-year term if elected. DeSantis paused for several seconds.

“This guy,” Newsom says he recalled thinking in the tape session, “is just literally programmed.”

And yet the DeSantis he’s seen in recent months, Newsom allowed in the hours before their debate, is a much-improved politician.

“Ron’s a young guy,” Newsom said. “He's going to be on the national stage for years.”