Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, and California Governor Gavin Newsom appear on screen from the press room during a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Ga,, on November 30, 2023. Credit - Christian Monterrosa—AFP via Getty Images
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The event was billed by some as a 2028 preview but it was more of a bizarro version of 2024—one where neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden were running for a second term.
In that alternate reality, it turns out, we would all be arguing a lot more about the pandemic.
"You were not following science. You were a lock-down Governor," Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told California Governor Gavin Newsom Thursday evening.
So much of the current political landscape can be traced to the national trauma of 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic and its fallout. Now almost four years on, the reverb continues to define political identity and ambition for two Governors with national aspirations and inclinations to be bullies. As DeSantis, who is running for President right now, and Newsom, who is not, clashed on Fox News, it was clear that their divergent approaches to pandemic was evidence in miniature why both men have a loud following among their parties’ partisans and why they rankle their detractors.
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“I had Disney open during Covid and we made them a fortune and we saved a lot of jobs. You had Disney closed inexplicably for over a year,” DeSantis said of the popular theme parks in each of their states.
Newsom had a retort at the ready, noting that DeSantis had actually engaged in mass closures and other limits in 2020 until the Republican base had clearly sided with Donald Trump’s nothing-to-see-here approach. “You should apologize for your Covid record,” Newsom said. “You were with [Anthony] Fauci. You aligned with vaccines. You aligned with CDC guidelines until you didn’t. Tens of thousands of people died.”
DeSantis countered that he saw the light. “When we opened schools we bucked all of those people in June of 2020. He kept the schools closed for a long time,” DeSantis said.
The mutual enmity between the two men is as apparent as it is helpful to their national ambitions. Ultimately, neither of these men is particularly likable. DeSantis seemed like he was trying to get familiar and find his footing in a 2024 campaign that is slipping through his fingers, while Newsom seemed indifferent to public opinion of his smugness. Neither, though, is yet a viable nominee in the current environment.
DeSantis smirked through Newsom’s thumping, reduced to Trumpian staccatos of “lies” and “false.” DeSantis, whose presidential campaign is struggling by every objective measure, spent his time defending his tenure as Florida Governor and making the case that his version of conservatism is the future of the nation, while California is an outlier of American values and priorities.
“You’re trolling folks and trying to find migrants to play political games to get some news and attention so you can out-Trump Trump. By the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” Newsom said.
DeSantis, who has made the culture wars a hallmark of his tenure as Governor and his platform for President, asserted that President Joe Biden is in cognitive decline and should step aside as the leader of the Democratic Party. “That’s why he’s running a shadow campaign,” DeSantis said of the man to his left.
Newsom declared he is not running for President in 2024 and again repeated that Vice President Kamala Harris is the obvious heir should Biden become incapable of running for a second term. “Joe Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks,” Newsom said. “It’s not even an option.”
At another point, Newsom corrected DeSantis’ pronunciation of Harris’ name: “By the way, it’s not Kah-mah-la Harris. Shame on you. It’s Comma-la Harris, Ron. Madame Vice President to you.”
The evening chugged along as the two men interrupted and stammered over each other. With DeSantis consistently chasing far-ahead frontrunner Trump and Newsom serving as a loyalist defender of the current White House, the Californian couldn’t help but to tweak DeSantis and his lagging campaign. “There’s one thing that we have in common: Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024,” Newsom said dryly.
“When are you going to drop out and at least give Nikki Haley a shot to take down Donald Trump?” Newsom jabbed as the evening lurched to a close beyond the agreed-upon time limit. “She laid you out.”
“You wish,” was all DeSantis could summon.
DeSantis was clearly not ready to acknowledge the reality of the political landscape and instead kept his eyes trained on his immediate debating rival. “Gavin Newsom did huge damage to people in California. He ruined livelihoods,” DeSantis said. “We reopened the state very quickly. We saved thousands of jobs. We saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, thousands of businesses. We had our kids in school. He had kids locked out of schools because of the teachers’ unions.”
Host Sean Hannity, who struggled to keep the men on stage there in Georgia in check and listening to their counterparts, at times ready to cede control of the conversation.
“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom said as DeSantis kept interjecting with impunity.
“You’re a bully,” DeSantis shot back like they were on a school playground and not a national stage.
“You intimidate and humiliate people,” Newsom said. “By the way, how well is this campaign going for you?”
DeSantis largely ignored the taunts and instead kept hammering Florida’s supremacy over California. While he kept making the case for his nomination—now or in 2028—the night was unlikely to change DeSantis’ polling or fundraising as he chases the 2024 nomination. But Newsom, who is laying the groundwork for a 2028 campaign, kept dinging DeSantis as a relic.
“You want to bring us back to a pre-1960s world. America in reverse,” Newsom said.
For his part, DeSantis seemed ready to go in the opposite direction, to run the clock ahead to 2028, when both men could end up the nominee. But it’s entirely obvious the events of 2020 won’t be far from their planning.
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