Politics / December 1, 2023

Ron DeSantis Is No Match for Gavin Newsom

At last night’s Fox News debate, even a home field advantage couldn’t keep the aspiring presidential candidate from choking.

Sasha Abramsky
DeSantis Newsom

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks on September 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, and California Governor Gavin Newsom, speaks on September 12, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif.

(AP Photo)

Two-thirds of the way through Thursday’s much-hyped debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, moderated by Fox News’s Sean Hannity and held in Alpharetta, Ga., the conversation turned to book banning. This was DeSantis’s terrain, his political bread and butter. Theatrically, DeSantis removed from his jacket pocket pages from the controversial book Gender Queer, which depicts a variety of sex acts in ways that leave, well, nothing to the imagination. The book was, the governor declared forcefully, pure “pornography,” and it was being peddled to young kids in states like California, via out-of-control sex education classes. By contrast, DeSantis said, he had taken measures to ensure that elementary school children weren’t subjected to such filth in their classrooms.

This was the sort of gotcha moment the conservative Fox crowd loves, one loaded with political peril for a progressive governor such as Newsom. Had there been an in-studio audience, which, thankfully, there wasn’t, it would likely have started booing the moment the Californian stood up to respond. Defend the book—which is indeed full of explicit imagery—too aggressively, and Newsom risked being seen as wildly out of touch with Middle America. Back off, however, and he risked coming across as weak, unwilling to stand his ground on matters of principle.

Governor Newsom claims not to have presidential ambitions in this election cycle, but earlier this year he put $10 million into a political action committee that in part is campaigning to win over voters in red states, and he is increasingly seen as having established a shadow campaign ready to launch should the aging and increasingly unpopular Biden decide to call it a day. And last night, he handled DeSantis’s stunt with aplomb. First, he listed many of the other literary works under attack in Florida—by authors such as the acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison and Amanda Gorman, the young African American poet who read at President Biden’s inauguration. Fully 1,406 books, he told viewers, were the targets of book-banners in Florida, and most of them had none of the ribald imagery displayed on the pages DeSantis had pulled up out of his pocket. And then, not for the first or last time in the 90-minute confrontation, the telegenic 56-year-old politician went on the attack. “I don’t like the way you demean people,” he said angrily, looking squarely at his rival. “I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ community, Ron.”

A few minutes later, as DeSantis unleashed a blistering verbal salvo on Newsom’s record in tackling homelessness in the Golden State, the California governor looked at the Floridian again and put on his best laid-back Californian air: “Ron, relax. I can handle it. I’m used to bullies. You’re nothing but a bully.” He raised his arms and smiled disarmingly. DeSantis cringed, visibly. Astoundingly, he seemed caught off-guard by Newsom’s debating tactics. He looked, in that moment, like an outmaneuvered younger sibling, left at the mercy of an older and more dynamic older brother.

When DeSantis went after another supposed Achilles’ heel for Newsom and the Democrats—the large numbers of people crossing the southern border illegally and then claiming asylum—Newsom again went on the attack. He accused his opponent of gamesmanship, of having once backed the principle of amnesty for undocumented residents and of tacking to the right solely to try to woo an extremist base. He pointed out that, while Biden has presented immigration reform plans to Congress, Congress itself has stymied all efforts to legislate change. Its members have instead largely just stood back while governors such as DeSantis have pulled a wave of stunts, including flying asylum seekers north to Martha’s Vineyard. “You’re trying to out-Trump Trump,” Newsom said. And then came the dagger between the shoulder blades: “By the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own state.”

There was a lot of shouting in this debate, and for much of the time the two governors were talking over each other so much that it was impossible to hear what either was saying. There was also an abundance of misleading information on both sides. Yet, at the same time—and yes, I realize it’s a low bar—it was a far more substantive debate than the GOP contests from the past few months. With only two contenders and moderator Hannity in the studio, there was room for real policies to be discussed and for a genuine ideological back-and-forth to take place.

On paper, the format, and the fact that Sean Hannity is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, should have benefited DeSantis. Hannity was only too happy to trot out head-to-head data to viewers: indicating that the number of homeless in California, as a percentage of the population, was three and a half times that in Florida; that California’s violent crime rate was far higher than the national average, while Florida’s was far lower; that three-quarters of a million people left California during the pandemic, while nearly half a million migrated to Florida; that the tax burden on Floridians is lower than the burden on Californians; that Florida’s unemployment rate is 2.8 percent and California’s 4.8 percent. With the moderator’s collaboration, DeSantis was able to paint Florida in a very favorable light compared to its Western rival.

And yet, despite both unleashing a number of zingers at Newsom and pointing to real economic accomplishment in Florida, DeSantis struggled to gain purchase. By the end of the evening, it was the Californian who walked away having scored the most points. As he defended both his state’s record and Biden’s federal accomplishments, he seemed relaxed; in contrast, DeSantis spent much of the evening twisting his face into ever-more-forced grimaces, perhaps realizing that this wasn’t going to be the home- run-filled evening that he desperately needed in order to rescue his flailing presidential campaign.

There are a number of credible Democrats waiting in the wings should Biden decide to retire, including Illinois’s wealthy Governor J.B. Pritzker and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But it is Newsom who has, in recent months, most methodically planted himself on center stage in national politics. Thursday’s debate showcased his ability to defend California’s record—even its less positive aspects—by relentlessly forcing the issue against his opponent. Not once did he back down; not once did he show hesitation. It’s a trait that will serve him well should he ever have the opportunity to take on Donald Trump in next year’s race for the White House.

Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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