Think for a moment about a few political facts such as this one: California Gov. Gavin Newsom is among President Biden’s most vociferous backers, and now may be too late for Biden to back out of next year’s campaign. Here’s another: Newsom’s second and final term as governor ends almost two years before the next presidential election.
So Newsom must have realized early on that if he ever wants to be president, he must establish himself as a major national Democratic figure independent of the office he now holds. That’s the context of his putative upcoming debate with Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who by now also must be aware that he too will not be running for president at this time next year and that if he’s ever to be president he also might need to survive as a major party figure independent of his current office.
This is the background of the Newsom-DeSantis debate agreed to by the Californian and Floridian, with only a few relatively minor details yet to be worked out. Newsom wants the debate in a Fox TV studio with no audience.
DeSantis wants a live crowd at the debate, with cheering allowed, even encouraged. Maybe he figures he could seem more credible if his folks yell louder than Newsom’s. DeSantis wants short videos at the debate’s start; Newsom wants four-minute opening statements.
These demands may be mistakes by DeSantis, who has sometimes been prone to error when under significant pressure. The disputes are mere nitpicking, though — if DeSantis does not try to use them to somehow back out of the debate he agreed to right after Newsom issued his challenge on July 28.
Newsom, of course, was glad to make DeSantis a prop in his effort to become a Democratic symbol. So what might these men debate in their encounter, likely to occur in Georgia, the lone state on both men’s lists of desired locations?
Likely to be first is both governors’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Newsom faced by closing down most businesses across his state while DeSantis left almost everything in Florida open. Newsom required masking in most public places, while DeSantis signed a bill that bans masking requirements.
DeSantis will brag that Florida suffered few financial ill effects from the viral invader, while Newsom will claim Florida saw about 40,000 more COVID deaths than if it had followed his model. If those are their claims, both will be correct. The question will be how many viewers believe the extra Florida deaths were worth the money saved.
Then there will be censorship. DeSantis moved strongly against the Walt Disney Co. — his state’s largest employer, through Orlando’s Disney World — when the company vocally opposed Florida’s year-old law banning classroom discussion below the fourth grade of LGBTQ topics. There is no such ban in California.
Florida also bans some books from schools, while Newsom says he’ll crack down on a Southern California school district that’s trying to follow a Florida-like plan.
Republicans like to say Democrats limit freedom of speech via the so-called “cancel culture,” which they say deprives audiences of viewpoints unlike what is considered politically correct. Democrats retort that Democratic states neither impose bans on teaching certain topics in public schools nor ban books, while Florida and some other Republican-led states are doing both.
So this may devolve into a dispute along the lines of the culture wars that have deepened what was already a major split among Americans. If it does, Newsom will be voicing views that polls show resonate with Democratic voters nationally, while DeSantis will be doing the same for Republicans.
It all means this debate promises to outdo Newsom’s repeated ad campaigns in Texas and Florida in raising his national party profile. Chances are it might do the same for DeSantis, who has not articulated his views ably in the early stages of this year’s presidential campaign.
In short, this debate probably won’t do much to shape next year’s election, but it may draw some lines for a 2028 election if it makes either or both men symbols of their parties’ futures.