The biggest loser of Thursday night’s debate between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom was us, the voters. For far too long party officials have had a stranglehold on how candidates are vetted, presented, and nominated. If the “Red vs. Blue State” debate was successful, it could have been the jumping-off point for other networks, third-party candidates, or donors to sponsor and create better opportunities for voters to see candidates in more diverse settings and formats. Sadly, it was unsuccessful for everyone involved.
Kudos to Sean Hannity for making it happen and kudos to Newsom for showing up to a forum he knew would be tilted toward DeSantis. Despite his actual performance, Newsom is the only person in his party that would have agreed to debate in that environment in the first place. Could you even imagine Vice President Kamala Harris in place of Newsom last night? It might have ended her political career. The reality is we know the White House would have never, ever allowed her to appear.
It’s hard to be critical of Hannity’s handling of the debate chaos because, short of cutting their mics off, there wasn’t much he could do besides appeal to both men several times to stop behaving like toddlers. It is unbecoming of governors, let alone presidential candidates, to talk over one another, and keep repeating the same statistic or practiced line. Still, Hannity deserves credit for pulling it off despite the fact that Trump and those around him aren’t thrilled he gave DeSantis the prime-time opportunity. Hannity has spoken openly about his personal relationship with Trump and his family, but he gave DeSantis airtime and a unique venue anyway.
Wearing the Hat vs. the Jersey
If you watch sports or attend games in person, you know the difference between a fan who is wearing a hat and the one who is wearing a jersey. A hat doesn’t have your favorite player’s name on it, just the team. A jersey has a specific player’s number and (with few exceptions) their last name. Fight in the stands? Most likely between fans who have jerseys on, not hats. In primary season, political pundits, donors, and early supporters have jerseys on, but regular voters who are living their lives mostly have hats on, or are willing to switch jerseys when the primary dust settles. How you think this debate went for DeSantis largely depends on whether you are wearing a DeSantis jersey or a GOP hat.
If you are wearing the DeSantis jersey, you think he crushed Newsom and embarrassed him with several references to the French Laundry incident and Newsom’s kids going to in-person private school while the rest of his state’s children were at home. You thought it was a nice touch when he talked about San Francisco police officers approaching him and thanking him for his support of law enforcement because they don’t get that in California. You were giddy when he pulled out both his paper props from his suit jacket to shame Newsom over the graphic nature of a book and a print-out of a San Francisco human feces map. If you have a DeSantis jersey on, it was a good event, even if all he got was major screen time without Nikki Haley zinging bad one-liners at him all night.
If you are wearing the GOP hat, maybe you didn’t see it the same way. You saw a presidential candidate that had some shades of Marco Rubio circa 2016 getting wrecked by Chris Christie. The repetitive talking points and stats in the face of a full-on frontal assault by Newsom is troublesome. You saw a guy who practiced all the stories he was going to tell last night (father-in-law, French Laundry, Newsom kids in person at private school) and still couldn’t tell them well.
You were thinking: if Trump told these exact same stories they would have landed with such force that Gavin’s White House dreams might have died on that stage last night. You also might be thinking that if Nikki Haley told those same stories she would have raised millions more dollars for her campaign. You saw a guy with a friendly moderator not be able to shift on the fly and bury Newsom when everything (data, history, and truth) was on his side. You also know that Donald Trump wouldn’t need to pull out crumpled paper to embarrass Newsom. He could have told those exact two stories without the props just as effectively.
A friend of mine who wears a GOP hat, not a jersey, texted me, “I don’t think he is good on his feet” during the debate, and he isn’t alone in that assessment. GOP hat-wearers are very perceptive and watched DeSantis Thursday night wondering if he has the stand-up skills to go to metaphorical war with whomever is occupying the other podium.
I am not sure last night moved the needle for DeSantis but how it’s perceived is very different by those wearing DeSantis jerseys versus those wearing GOP hats. It was a wasted opportunity for some much-needed change of the political process and for both participants.