If there were winners out of Fox News’ debate between California’s Gavin Newsom and Florida’s Ron DeSantis tonight, it was Joe Biden, Donald Trump and the Walt Disney Company. If there were losers, it looks to be the Sunshine State governor himself, civility and Sean Hannity.
Live from Alpharetta, GA, the crowd-free Great Red vs Blue State Debate saw the incumbent POTUS get big props and support over and over from his ambitious adoptive political son. On the other side of the aisle, the Hannity-moderated event left the former Celebrity Apprentice host actually looking like a heavyweight compared to the shrill DeSantis.
Far from the chumminess of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman’s VP debate in 2000 as well as the verbal and philosophical sabers of the dramatic Town Meeting of the World between then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy via satellite in 1967, this insult match was reminiscent in all the wrong ways of Biden and Trump’s first debate in 2020.
Of course, the difference is that Ron DeSantis is running for the 2024 GOP nomination for president and Gavin Newsom, who quoted from the Great Communicator tonight in whacking down Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, isn’t running for anything in 2024 – as he pledged tonight under pressure from Hannity and his fellow governor.
Which means that, in the short term, Newsom had nothing to lose by playing in the Fox den.
Quipping “Ron, relax” and labeling DeSantis as “nothing but a bully,” Newsom had the best two lines of night. On the flip side, DeSantis often called his foe a liar as Newsom deemed the Florida governor’s record on Covid as one of flip-flopping, at times parroting some of the same points made by Trump.
“I had Disney open during Covid and we made them a fortune and we saved a lot of jobs,” DeSantis bellowed after the West Coast Democrat took the first of several digs at him over recent jurisdictional and legal battles with the Bob Iger-led House of Mouse. “You had Disney closed inexplicably for over a year. You were a lockdown governor, you did a lot of damage to your people,” DeSantis added, literally stomping over his own attempt to resurrect the tension in 2020 between Newsom and the then-Bob Chapek-run company over Disneyland closures.
Trolling each other for months and throwing mud at the other’s state, leadership and Oval Office dreams, Newsom and DeSantis’ long-awaited dogfight ultimately was a wasted opportunity.
Even more so than the participants themselves, the debate floundered because it didn’t live up to its own fair-and-balanced hype. From the start, this proved to be an extension of Hannity’s opinion show, with many of the questions tailored to put Newsom on defense. With a squint and a redirection of ambition, FNC’s Hannipalooza could be seen as a backhanded audition for The Daily Show co-hosting gigs for the ultimately termed-out governors if Newsom hadn’t been so dominant.
The debate certainly wasn’t the planned crowning achievement for its moderator, who seemed out of his comfort zone for most of the 90-minute event.
The Great Red vs Blue State Debate kicked off with Hannity declaring, “I will be moderating this debate, I will not be part of the debate.” Unfortunately for Hannity, that proved to be very true within minutes as the Fox host lost control of the proceedings. The two governors went at each other with little regard for time limits or rules of engagement.
Put it this way: You know you have a problem when you have to declare in the first half-hour, as Hannity did, that, “I want this debate to breathe … I don’t want to be a hall monitor.” A plea he had to make twice. Even before that, the moderator’s Switzerland stance dissipated pretty quickly with the first trio of questions being standard Fox News-host digs at the Golden State.
Hannity insisted toward the end of the debate that he was “not a potted plant,” but the candidates continued to talk over each other.
Having said that, the issues aside, the lack of an audience was one distinct upside to this debate. The contenders onstage might have not had a lot to say to each other, but the lack of the constant interruptions and partisan crowd applause and groans was a welcome relief and a blueprint for the future.
Slamming Newsom as slick and willing to tell “a blizzard of lies,” DeSantis came out swinging while a comfortable Newsom played it cool like 1992 Bill Clinton with a bit of Obama flair and slipped the shiv to the Florida governor. Newsom’s accusation of DeSantis taking “America in reverse” and trying to “out-Trump Trump” by sending migrants from non-border Florida to Martha’s Vineyard and Sacramento left political blood on the red carpeted set.
“By the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” Newsome said in what was a Trump campaign ad waiting to be made.
Newsom had said earlier to an often-wide-eyed DeSantis. “As he continues to talk over me, I’ll talk to the American people as you smile and smirk over there.” Claiming that West Coast Democrats are on an “ideological joyride” when it comes to crime and trying to shame Newsom over his pandemic-era French Laundry scandal, DeSantis smartly pivoted again and again to Fox viewers.
Newsom was willing to attack DeSantis from the right or to borrow from Trump, as he did in quoting the former president’s “Red Ron” pro-China kick at the Florida governor.
The well-publicized debate was locked down ages ago when DeSantis looked like the likely GOP alternative to Trump. DeSantis’ decline in the polls, though, didn’t appear to diminish interest in the matchup with Newsom. The event was heavily promoted and hyped on Fox throughout the day Thursday. The Five kicked off with Dana Perino calling it “the Red vs. Blue showdown we’ve all been waiting for.”
While the stakes for DeSantis were clear, Fox News host Jesse Watters made the case that it also was a risk for Newsom. He noted that “Newsom has to be good, but he can’t be too good. … What I mean is Newson has to be good so he has to establish himself as the heir apparent as the alternative in case something happens to Joe … But if he’s too good … then you’re going see donors and pundits start drafting him and telling Joe Biden to clip the campaign, and that’s going to create a war. And I don’t think the Democratic Party wants that.”
The night’s dust-up between the two governors did offer a rare chance for an unnuanced live and direct clash of visions for the nation and the world. Some of that came through, but much time was spent trying to discern what the candidates were even saying to the other, something that Hannity tried to remind the both of them.
There are other dates on the calendar that will give DeSantis the opportunity to command media attention for his record in Florida. Next Wednesday is another Republican debate, this time hosted by NewsNation, the upstart news network that has had a fraction of the Fox audience. In two weeks, a federal court will hear arguments in his motion to dismiss Disney’s First Amendment lawsuit, in which the company alleges retaliation after it came out against the governor’s parental rights law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The real big date on the calendar is January 15, the day of the Iowa caucuses.
Newsom repeatedly reminded DeSantis that he was trailing in the polls, he suggested that he drop out to boost Nikki Haley and he predicted that neither one of them would be a presidential nominee in 2024. As much as Hannity tried to steer the debate into questions of policy, often noting California’s downsides vs. Florida’s upsides, the evening was one of jostling and jabs. And when it comes to who will be facing off against each other in 2024, Newsom may very well be right.