Newsom vs. DeSantis: A real debate on the issues or just more mudslinging?

This story appeared in Calmatters

From left, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photos by Rebecca Blackwell, AP Photo and Miguel Gutierrez Jr, CalMatters

In summary

After months of long-distance exchanges, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will have a face-to-face debate on Thursday. Will it be a mature conversation or just more mudslinging?

Most political “debates” are not worthy of the name, particularly those involving more than two opponents.

The participants come with pre-digested talking points that they attempt to make without truly engaging with others who are trying to do the same thing. The typical format, with questions from a panel of journalists, muddies the waters even more.

A real political debate is one-on-one, with at most a moderator to keep matters under minimal control, allowing the protagonists to pretty much decide what they want to say on the topic at hand.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity says he wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to have a real debate Thursday night over their very different approaches to governance in two of the nation’s most diverse and populous states.

Focusing on health care, education, crime, homelessness, poverty and the myriad other issues that governors face these days would be a refreshing departure from the buzzwords and personal invective that mark most political discourse these days – including the long-distance exchanges between Newsom, a Democrat, and DeSantis, a Republican.

Alas, there is a small likelihood that Thursday’s 90-minute event will be such an adult conversation because both politicians obviously see it as an opportunity to advance their political careers beyond the offices they now hold.

DeSantis is trying, so far without much success, to establish himself as the Republicans’ fallback presidential candidate should former President Donald Trump’s many legal problems derail his bid for a second presidency. Given Hannity’s deeply red audience, the debate is an opportunity for DeSantis to regain momentum as a viable alternative to Trump.

Meanwhile, Newsom, having survived a recall election and won a second and final term as governor, is trying to establish himself as a national political figure, perhaps to replace Joe Biden if the president’s standings in polls force him out of next year’s presidential election, or run in 2028 – his constant denials of such ambitions notwithstanding.

At the very least, Newsom wants to be seen as a visible and effective surrogate for Biden, thereby earning brownie points that would propel him to a cabinet post or some other high-profile position after his governorship ends in 2027. It’s improbable that having devoted half of his 56 years to climbing the political ladder one rung at a time, Newsom would simply return to being a purveyor of wine and food.

Therefore, this will not be a debate between two governors so much as a clash between two politicians with future ambitions of some kind. What they have done – or not done – as governors is merely grist for each to score points on the other and thus polish their credentials as political warriors.

DeSantis will portray California as a dystopian cesspool of crime, drugs and squalid homeless encampments, pointing out that hundreds of thousands of Californians have fled the state in recent years. Don’t be surprised if he cites a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California that 61% of Californians believe that the state no longer nurtures the American dream.

Newsom, meanwhile, will portray DeSantis as a dictatorial figure who bans books, censors speech, allowed COVID-19 to run rampant, suppresses LGBTQ Floridians and wants to eliminate women’s rights to seek abortions. Newsom has been hammering on those themes for months, even running ads in Florida.

Their subliminal messages will be that to allow the other to become president would be allowing the supposed horrors of their governorships to bring ruin to the entire nation.

Maybe this is being unduly cynical. Maybe they will have the mature conversation that Hannity promises. Maybe pigs can fly.

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