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, Georgia, 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 fo 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 Senator 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 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 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 deamed 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 was ultimately a wasted opportunity.
Even more so that 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 Hannpalooza 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 dominate.
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 debate.
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 breath …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 quick with the first trio of questions being standard Fox News-host digs at the Golden State.
Hannity insisted towards the end of the debate that he was “not a potted plant,” but the candidates continued to talk over one another.
Having said that, the issues aside, the lack of an audience was one distinct upside this debate provided. The contenders on stage may 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 circa Clinton 1992 with a bit of Obama flare 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?” Newsom then mocked DeSantis. “You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” he added in what was a Trump campaign ad waiting to be made.
“As he continues to talk over me, I’ll talk to the American people,” Newsom said earlier, adding “as you smile and smirk over there” to an often-wide-eyed DeSantis. Claiming West Coast Democrats are on an “ideological joyride” when it comes to crime and trying to shame Newsom over his pandemic French Laundry scandal, DeSantis smartly pivoted again and again to Fox viewers – for all the good it did him.
Reaching into the heart of that viewership, Newsom’s quote of Trump’s “Red Ron” pro-China kick at DeSantis today probably did the Florida Governor more damage than anything else.
Locked down ages ago when DeSantis looked like a viable candidate for the GOP nomination against Donald Trump, tonight’s already well publicized debate was given the full Fox hype treatment Thursday. The Five kicked off today with Dana Perino being understated in comparison to many of her colleagues when she called the contest “the Red vs. Blue showdown we’ve all been waiting for.”
Jesse Watters had clearly been swigging the Kool-Aid, but the Bill O’Reilly protégé actually had a surprisingly adroit take on the stakes tonight for the California Governor. “Newsom has to be good, but he can’t be too good,” Watters told Perino. “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 and then definitely in 2020. But if he’s too good, Dana, 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.”
On a day that saw natural and Constitutional Biden heir Vice President Kamala Harris widely criticized for her on-stage interview at Wednesday’s New York Times Dealbook Summit and American officials were trying to convince Israel and Hamas to extend their temporary truce in Gaza, tonight’s dust-up between the two Governors offered the promise to viewers of a rare chance for an unnuanced live and direct clash of visions for the nation and the world. Partially in that vein, the Newsom vs DeSantis debate also comes just over two weeks before a federal court in the Sunshine State will hold a hearing on the Florida Governor’s latest attempt to have Disney’s First Amendment-based lawsuit dismissed.
Of course, the real big date on the calendar is January 15, the day of the Iowa caucuses.
Low in primary polls in New Hampshire and others, as Newsom pointed out repeatedly, DeSantis has gone all in for the Hawkeye State contest with hopes of reasonable enough showing to slow down the Trump train to securing the GOP nomination for the third time. That leap of faith looks even less likely after tonight’s performance.