The overhyped but still fun “red state/blue state” debate between Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom on Thursday night showed two things about the state of our politics:
We’ll get a vastly better debate of issues that matter when we finally get past Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And one reason we can’t get past them is that some of the most prominent leaders in their respective parties aren’t ready for prime time.
At times too few and far between, the Florida and California governors elevated the debate on the vast ideological differences over how to govern our increasingly divided nation. If you strained your ears, you could hear important perspectives on the role of the state, sustaining economic growth and addressing specific issues such as crime, education and energy.
But the West Coast Democrat and the Gulf Coast Republican flung a blizzard of statistics across the stage, accused each other of lies and spent more time lecturing than persuading.
On the issues, DeSantis largely crushed Newsom, who started with pure garbage about interstate migration patterns and went downhill from there. Newsom struggled to defend Biden’s economic record, California’s impossible cost of living and the scary state of crime and disorder in his cities. He managed to land some punches on abortion.
On style, though, DeSantis showed all the problems that have crippled his presidential campaign — a cold style and thin skin.
Neither demonstrated that he would be remotely ready to overtake Trump or Biden as his party’s nominee. DeSantis, after months running for president, still can’t break out of his boxes — Florida, culture wars and focusing on topics that only hard-core online political junkies care much about.
Newsom had a tough draw: fielding loaded questions from a conservative Fox News moderator and defending Joe Biden while trying not to outshine the struggling president. He balanced the tasks but at times came across as too slick or morally preening. Really, Governor, scolding someone over the pronunciation of Kamala Harris’ name? Get over yourself.
In retrospect, it’s hard to see why DeSantis agreed to the Fox News event. It could only be a massive distraction from his presidential campaign. Maybe he sought a Hail Mary, trailing Trump as badly as he is. The event offered him no opportunity to break from Trump or even contrast with the frontrunner. Worse still, DeSantis didn’t create any such moments, something a competent presidential candidate finds a way to do.
To sum up DeSantis’ performance: He said nothing about Trump but managed to name — twice! — the high-dollar restaurant that Newsom visited amid COVID restrictions. Republicans surely appreciated the barb, but none will shift their votes over it. And that’s what DeSantis needs.
Newsom is technically not running for president, so lodging immediate gains wasn’t a priority. But the Californian clearly wants to position himself to follow Biden, either in 2028 or sooner if the president cannot fulfill his intention to run next year.
Newsom deserves credit for going into a hostile environment to engage on issues. It’s the kind of interaction we need more of if we’re going to get through some of our divides.
It’s less useful, though, if your technique is to self-righteously attack your opponent and smugly declare your moral superiority on everything from guns to mental health — all while accusing DeSantis of having a “focus on false separateness.”
For all their efforts, Newsom and DeSantis showed why neither is likely to dislodge Biden or Trump. Americans have made clear in poll after poll that they don’t want a rematch between the two older men. And yet, their parties clearly aren’t ready to serve up much better.
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