Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

OP-ED: Sunshine Showdown: Governors Desantis and Newsom Clash In Debate Of Presidential Hopefuls

Gavin Newsom speaks in Sacramento, 2020

The disparate governing philosophies of Governors Ron Desantis of Florida and Gavin Newsom of California have created polarizing and polar opposite states. On the night of November 30, in “The Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate”, the two governors took to the national stage, defending the merits of their respective philosophies while lambasting those of their opponents. The debate was messy, abrasive, and loud. That it happened at all, however, constitutes a win for both participants. 

For Desantis, this was a chance to draw attention to his ailing campaign. For Newsom, it was a chance to project himself onto the national stage and prepare the grounds for a likely future bid for the presidency.

Failures of California policy that have resulted in widespread homelessness and high tax rates have served as a foil for Desantis, just as Florida’s regression on an array of civil liberties has been used by Newsom. 

The debate covered myriad hot-button issues such as abortion, guns, gas prices, and crime. Unsurprisingly, the resulting debate was extremely contentious. Hosted by long-time Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, the line of questioning held a strong conservative bias throughout. Hannity readily acknowledged this political leaning, opening the debate with the admission, “It’s kind of widely known that I am a conservative” but aimed to remain impartial by focusing on “fact-based questions”. Despite his assurance, Hannity consistently hammered conservative points harder than liberal ones. And, despite the debate’s stated focus on state-level issues, Hannity asked the participants whether “Joe Biden is experiencing cognitive decline,” a favorite talking point of conservatives. 

The debate was intensely theatrical, a trend that has dogged American political debates since Trump rode the media’s love of rancorous showmanship into the White House. The governors talked over one another incessantly and the rhetoric of the debate was dominated by ad hominem one-liners, accusations of dishonesty, and a wide variety of statistics, only some of which were true.

On the issue of Californians leaving the state, Desantis accused Newsom of spewing a “blizzard of lies to mask [California’s] failures”. Newsom retorted by taking aim at Desantis’ failing campaign. “You are trying to out Trump, Trump,” Newsom said, “and by the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state.”

A poll of Vanderbilt Political Review readers offered a similarly pessimistic view of Desantis’s political future. The poll asked, “Who do you think has a better chance at being president someday?” with the available choices being the two governors. 72  percent believed Newsom to have a better shot at the presidency, while Desantis received only 28 percent.

Hannity spoke at length about California’s high tax rates, one of the primary causes for the population decline the state has faced, a point Desantis’ has hammered. Newsom countered that higher taxes were only for California’s high earners; for the average person rates were lower. Though true in some regards, Newsom’s figures were cherry-picked. Newsom further argued that, despite high corporate taxes, “California has no peers” in terms of economic might. Notwithstanding recent economic slowdowns attributable to turmoil in the tech sector and population decline, California is still “the fifth largest economy in the world,” stated Newsom, “We dominate.”

For Newsom, his first nationally televised debate offered the rising star the opportunity for his own 2004 DNC moment, when a then little-known Senator Barack Obama gave a riveting speech that sparked his rapid ascendency within the Democratic Party. The debate was viewed by nearly 5 million people. For most viewers, it was likely their first hearing Newsom speak at length, granting the Governor an opportunity to develop a public image. Newsom spoke more eloquently than Desantis and projected confidence in his language and demeanor. However, as one might expect from a national debut, there were weak points as well. When Desantis went low, Newsom could have taken the high road. Instead, he took Desantis’ bait, often becoming visibly agitated.

Desantis was an ostentatious debater, bringing a large number of statistics as well as an odd assortment of props to support his points. Presenting a map of fecal matter in the streets of San Francisco Desantis stated, “You have the freedom to defecate in public in California. You have the freedom to pitch a tent on Sunset Boulevard. You have the freedom to create a homeless encampment under a freeway and even light it on fire.” Later, to justify his book-ban policies, he presented a children’s book too obscene to be shown in detail by the Fox cameras. Despite his strong performance, hailed as a success among his supporters, the debate likely signaled the death throes of his failing campaign. 

Thursday’s debate displayed the ideological chasm between the pair but also highlighted notable similarities. Both politicians need the spotlight on them to further their political aims. Newsom is developing the name recognition he will need for a successful 2028 campaign, while Desantis fights to stay relevant in a 2024 race dominated by Donald Trump. The chaotic nature of the debate generated eye-grabbing headlines that will likely help both political aspirants in their fight for political buzz. 

Stage presence and the content of one’s arguments are of equal importance in debates such as these. In many ways, Thursday’s debate recalled the 1964 presidential debate. Those who listened tuned in by radio were more likely to believe that Richard Nixon, the established conservative, had won. Those who watched the televised debate saw a confident, handsome, up-and-coming John F. Kennedy outshine a visibly nervous Nixon. Desantis is often cast as a Nixon-esque figure – the caricature of a “sleazy”, self-interested politician. Newsom too has faced the characterization of “a slick, slippery politician” as Desantis labeled him during the debate. Newsom, however, is less established and still has the potential to shake this label. 

Had Newsom resisted the anger-baiting slights Desantis leveled, his typical poise and self-assurance would have shown in stark relief against Desantis’ sardonic personality and debate style. Instead of rising to be the Kennedy of the debate, Newsom sunk to Desantis’ level. The California governor pivoted away from questions that should have been answered and struck low blows, at one point calling Desantis “weak, pathetic and small.” Newsom even failed to “Say something nice about Florida”, the softball closing question of the night. He elected instead to return to talking points. As Newsom hones his public persona in preparation for his likely presidential run in 2028, he will need to improve some of these weaker facets of his debate style.


Photo by Office of the Governor of California from Wikicommons

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About the Contributor
Alex Mormorunni
Alex Mormorunni, Online Director
Alex Mormorunni is a junior Political Science and Asian Studies double major. He writes about Chinese politics and environmental policy. Outside of VPR, Alex is a research assistant for Professor Brett Benson studying US-China-Taiwan relations, and is a copy editor for the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal. In his free time, Alex likes to run and watch baseball.