Newsom deserves credit for doing what few Democrats will, confronting GOP in DeSantis debate

By Garry South

December 1, 2023

Cal Matters

The Interruption Fest – otherwise known as the much-ballyhooed red vs. blue debate between Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – is mercifully over. It was admittedly my longest stretch watching Fox News for any reason, and the only time in my life that I tuned into Sean Hannity, one of the media’s top conspiracy theorists.

The deck was stacked against Newsom from the outset, with Hannity acting more like a prosecuting attorney than a neutral moderator. Predictably, nearly every question he posed was intended to make Florida look good in relation to California, essentially tossing soft balls to DeSantis. Both DeSantis and Hannity were talking over Newsom on countless occasions, sometimes both at the same time.

Many people asked why Newsom would place himself in the lion’s den, agreeing to a session that was for all practical purposes him debating both DeSantis and Hannity. Pundits are bleating that it is because he wants to position himself for a presidential run.

I don’t pretend to know what Newsom’s plans or intentions are, and this sort of exposure certainly would benefit him if he does eventually run for president. But I have a somewhat different slant on his high visibility on the national stage, including this one.

For years, Democrats stood by and watched as Republicans abridged every political norm, precedent and protocol. The far right has set up a massive disinformation infrastructure and echo chamber – Fox News, Newsmax, One America News and others – to feed mistruths and conspiracy theories to voters and attack Democratic officeholders and policies with outright lies. 

Even worse, conservatives have hijacked and redefined the entire lexicon of public policy to the detriment of longstanding Democratic priorities. The estate tax was transmogrified into a “death tax;” Obama’s health care proposal was summed up as supposedly including “death panels;” a woman’s right to choose was falsely shorthanded into “partial-birth abortion;” rights for transgender people have become “men in girls’ bathrooms.” Making it easier for people to vote is deemed “election fraud.” 

Newsom himself, to his everlasting credit, has on numerous occasions publicly bemoaned the inability or unwillingness of his own party to stand up and effectively and aggressively counter the GOP’s attempts to restrict Americans’ rights and subvert our elections.

President Joe Biden has started to issue direct criticisms of Donald Trump and the bigotry he promulgates, but he also marinated for nearly four decades in the forced bonhomie of the U.S. Senate, where everything is “my dear friend from (fill in the state),” and “he is my friend, even though we’re of different parties.” And Vice President Kamala Harris is too damaged reputationally, and her public standing too low, to be the designated attack dog of the administration, as some number twos have been (think Spiro Agnew under Richard Nixon).

The current chair of the national Democratic Party, Jaime Harrison, has inexplicably been absent in this fight.

Democrats need to grow the spine to meet the moment and fight back in intelligent, timely, aggressive and effective ways. Newsom has been doing this in so many ways – and the debate with DeSantis was part of that.

So for those disheartened by the lack of aggressive challenges to the distortions, deceptions and depredations of the this era’s GOP and its ringleader, good for Newsom for venturing into the belly of the right-wing media beast and speaking truth to the American public, despite knowing it would be a two-on-one encounter.

The much-hyped debate between warring cross-country governors Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis was skewed, chaotic and full of insults. CalMatters columnist Dan Walters says viewers who tuned into the Thursday night football game between the Cowboys and Seahawks witnessed a better show.