It was heat and not much light in Newsom-DeSantis debate

by Mark Z. Barabak

The prodigiously hyped debate between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis was never going to be more than a diversion, a brief sideshow running parallel to the main attraction — the actual campaign for the White House.

California’s Democratic governor is not a candidate for president, as he has oft stated and reiterated several more times Thursday night.

Florida’s governor is running for the Republican nomination, but doing so poorly that he stooped to participate in a publicity stunt, dressed up as a national policy forum, that fairly reeked with the smell of DeSantis’ desperation.

Even by those meager standards, “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate,” as Fox News breathlessly promoted the cable TV throwdown, proved a dud.

“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom taunted.

“You’re a bully,” DeSantis shot back.

And so it went, for more than 90 excruciating minutes — at least on those occasions when the two weren’t talking past or over each other, rendering large portions of their tetchy dialogue thoroughly incomprehensible.

A good debate — or one that’s worth its while — illuminates issues, parses differences and sheds light on the persona of its participants. You can tune in and learn something new about the candidates, or perhaps, after they’ve met on multiple occasions, discover something fresh and different.

Thursday night’s affair was an exercise in affirmation, underscoring much of what we’ve already grasped, to wit:

  • Newsom and DeSantis genuinely despise each other.
  • They have vastly different approaches and philosophies to govern their sprawling, variegated states.

The evening’s ringmaster, Sean Hannity, had pledged to be an evenhanded and impartial facilitator of the discussion. But the oh-so-soft questions he gently lofted DeSantis left no doubt where Hannity’s rooting interests lay.

Each segment was prefaced with a selective battery of statistics — on crime, gas prices, education, homelessness — that painted California as just a hair’s breadth from capsizing and sliding ingloriously into the ocean. (But not before masses of its declining population dashed to get the hell out of its dystopian mire.)

Despite that obvious advantage, it was DeSantis who seemed ill at ease most of the night, looking like a man suffering a hernia as he prepared to face a root canal.

“That’s a lie,” was his standard rejoinder, strangely accompanied by a waxen smile that flickered on and off as though set on a faulty timer.

“You are just jabbering,” DeSantis said during another bristling back-and-forth. “I know you like to jabber. I know you like to lie.”

“Anytime you are uncomfortable, you just make stuff up,” Newsom responded.

For California’s governor, who loves gamboling on a national stage, the whole evening was a lark. He has taunted DeSantis from long distance for more than a year and plainly enjoyed being able to shiv him up close; a broad grin telegraphed his glee.

“You’re trolling folks … to try to get some news and attention, so you can out-Trump Trump,” Newsom said at one point, referencing the commanding GOP front-runner. “And by the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state.”


The subplot of the evening was Newsom’s supposed “shadow campaign,” as DeSantis called it, to wrest the Democratic nominating from the aged incumbent, President Biden.

But California’s governor was utterly slavish in the role of dutiful party soldier, repeatedly extolling Biden’s performance with a rat-a-tat of statistics — a Newsom hallmark — on falling inflation, rising employment and other favorable barometers.

He even leapt to the defense of his old frenemy, Vice President Kamala Harris, when DeSantis mispronounced her first name. (Deliberately, it seems.)

“It’s KOM-a-luh,” Newsom sounded out. “Madame Vice President, to you.”

Much has been made of the showdown as a possible preview of the 2028 presidential campaign.

But that contest is political eons away.

There were also comparisons made to the debate between California Gov. Ronald Reagan and New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, two other political celebrities who staged a similar sort of exhibition match in May 1967. They, too, were seen as prospective presidential rivals.

But even though Reagan’s performance in that sober match-up was widely lauded, it took three tries and more than a dozen years before he finally made it to the White House.

Newsom might be considered the winner Thursday night, if there was such a thing, simply by making DeSantis show up and debate him as an equal.

But it’s highly unlikely that anything said or done on the red-and-blue-themed sound stage outside Atlanta will change the trajectory of the 2024 campaign.

The typical half-life of a political debate — even one among legitimate contenders — is about 24 hours. All the hype aside, the Newsom-DeSantis face-off seems destined to fade just as readily.

The best that can be said is that given an opportunity to extend the forum beyond its scheduled 90 minutes — and Newsom certainly seemed eager to go on — Fox mercifully spared its audience and passed.

Here’s hoping for no repeat.

Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West.