The Newsom-DeSantis debate was over before it started

Will Swaim


Will Swaim
December 1, 2023

The Newsom-DeSantis debate was over before it started

The Thursday night debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida’s Ron DeSantis was over before the Klieg lights went up. The facts of California’s decline are evident to everyone but the most disingenuous. As the old saying goes, “Facts is facts,” and on the facts, DeSantis had the debate won by Wednesday. 

All that was left was the theater: Would Newsom win on debate tactics, quips and good looks?

He would not. 

The end came long before First Partner Jennifer Seibel-Newsom threw in the towel, killing the adrenalized Newsom’s protest that he could go on all night like this. The end came in Newsom’s response — or rather non-response — to Fox News moderator Sean Hannity’s first question: Why are record numbers of Californians leaving the state?

DeSantis offered a catalogue of incentives for Californians to leave a state of staggering wealth and beauty — high crime, taxes, rampant homelessness, the excessive Covid lockdown, high fuel prices and low electricity output. 

Newsom had no answer on the exodus, appearing to hope that no one would notice if he offered instead a list of California’s many fine attributes — did you know we have a bumper crop of Nobel Prize winners and a powerful tech industry? But that hardly explains why huge numbers of Californians are rushing into UHaul stores. So, Hannity politely pressed Newsom — three times! — for a direct answer, and when none was forthcoming, observed, “I have asked you why Californians are leaving. You don’t want to answer, so we’ll move on.”

It went on like that. When Hannity pointed out that California’s education spending outpaces Florida’s, but that Florida produces better student outcomes, Newsom offered a long list of “plans” for future spending and tried to turn the conversation to (what he called) DeSantis’s “book-banning binge.” Newsom’s alliteration is terrific, but in a fascinating portent of future debates (in which pictures will beat mere ideas), DeSantis just happened to have a photocopy of  a very graphic page from the graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir — a book that’s available in California school libraries but which Fox could not allow to appear more than an instant before politely directing cameras to pan away in favor of a long shot. 

When the conversation turned to energy, Newsom blamed Big Oil for high gasoline prices; DeSantis rightly cited California’s highest-in-the-nation gas taxes and extreme regulations. When Newsom tried to argue that California is a global leader in “clean energy,” DeSantis fired back, pointing out the irony of a governor who would mandate electric vehicles for everyone and then beg their owners not to recharge them — because that could bring down the entire western-states grid. 

When Hannity pointed out that the CDC has concluded that Covid death rates were about the same in Florida and California, Newsom denied the science; that left DeSantis to explain that if the death rates were roughly the same, Newsom’s Stalinist lockdown order was a loser — damaging the state economy, wrecking public education and childhood mental health, and accelerating the California exodus.

When DeSantis turned up the heat on Los Angeles and San Francisco — crime, open-air drug use and sex, metastasizing homelessness, a fire that just weeks ago burned down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway — Newsom went full Bette Davis. He was outraged, Newsom said, just disgusted that DeSantis would attack these great world cities. He would not tolerate that — nor would he stand by as DeSantis apparently mispronounced “Kamala” Harris. “Shame on you,” Newsom said. “That’s Madam Vice President, to you, Ron. Stop insulting her.”

But standing by was what Newsom did best last night. Having never faced real reporters who ask tough questions, he was like a housecat released into a pack of California coyotes — trapped by undeniable, terrible data and confronted by an adversary who has been punched in the face 10,000 times by the toughest punchers in the world — from Donald Trump and an unfriendly media to the global corporate-university-entertainment-bureaucratic-scientific industrial complex. Newsom is a machine politician from a uni-party state with a friendly media. 

And it’s the friendly media response that signals who won the debate. The Sacramento Bee editorial board cock-a-doodled, “Host Sean Hannity and Fox News executives set up the questions for issues that painted California, and by extension Newsom, in the worst way. Given that he had to play defense throughout, Newsom carried himself well, calling out hypocrisy and inaction by DeSantis and Republicans.” Imagine: Reporters who hold themselves out as courageous for their willingness to “speak truth to power,” “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” are offended because a moderator put their favorite on defense. The horror!

There was another related but more ironic theme in this morning’s debate coverage. Politico and others noted that the Newsom camp has declared that the fix was in — that Newsom’s poor performance came only because Fox, Hannity and DeSantis “cheated.” Winners don’t whine about “cheating.” You can imagine the media furor if Donald Trump had offered a similar defense of his poor performance. 

Make no mistake: the purpose of the debate is not merely to determine who will occupy the White House in 2024. Nor was this a setup for 2028. It was, in fact, a tale of two states — one in which powerful government unions finance the campaigns of feckless politicians who, once in office, return the favor with more and more money and privilege. That legal corruption leaves working Californians — immigrants, the poor and indigent, and blue-collar and middle-class families — in the cold. They were always props for Newsom and his performative fellows.

Many post-debate reviews offered to cut the baby in half. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Emily Hoeven declared the real winner “unhinged male rage.” Mark Barabak, her counterpart at the Los Angeles Times, concluded, “It was heat and not much light in Newsom-DeSantis debate.”

And Hannity did lose control. The two men talked over one another so regularly and at such length that Hannity seemed at one moment to ask a producer to kill the mics before saying more clearly, “Gentlemen, no one can hear you.” The debater’s tactic — of silencing your adversary via simultaneous monologuing – meant many viewers may have lost the key distinction between DeSantis’s conservative philosophy and Newsom’s progressive model. 

That moment came as the pair debated the ultimate authority of parents over their children — even in the classroom. Newsom asserted that California so honors the rights of parents that those rights are enshrined in the state constitution, under the Local Control Funding Formula. But that statute is neither part of the state’s ever-expanding constitution, nor does it enhance parental authority over children. DeSantis chose a related issue to make his point — Newsom’s signing of state Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 107. That law allows trans kids running away from other states to stay in California, and it prohibits state officials from cooperating with parents or officials in other states to return those children to their homes. It’s as if San Francisco’s Summer of Love was turned into state law. 

Newsom couldn’t take it. As DeSantis explained the barbarity of kidnapping children from other states, Newsom chattered helplessly alongside him. It took me three rewinds to determine what Newsom was saying: “You know what, Ron? These kids just want to live. These kids just want to survive. They just want to survive.” And it took a careful listener to hear DeSantis make the evening’s key philosophical declaration: “Who are you to decide that for these families?” 

There’s an answer to that question: Newsom is the guy who, operating in the insular world of California politics, has paid no price for overpromising and under-delivering. Until now.

Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center and co-host with David Bahnsen of National Review’s “Radio Free California” podcast. 

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