If you join the millions expected to tune in to Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News at 9:00 p.m. ET this evening to watch the long-awaited showdown between Govs. DeSantis and Newsom, you will witness what some are calling the shadow presidential debate. Others dismiss what is certain to be a lively and combative affair as mere grandstanding by two politicos with unmistakable ambitions for the ultimate prize – and desperate for attention. And still others view it more benignly as merely a preview of the presidential race – in 2028.
No matter the context, the opportunities for both debaters are enormous – but so are the risks. The two men seek opposite objectives, one clearly, the other through the glass darkly. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is out to prove he is still relevant in a GOP presidential primary that is clearly slipping away from him, and that he can take on Donald Trump head-to-head, or at least make his differences with the former president more distinct and appealing. The famously clever Gavin Newsom (D-CA), on the other hand, will try to thread a very fine needle, proving his bona fides on the national stage without undermining or threatening the prospects of his own party’s president. Expect him to heap praise on Joe Biden, even as he promotes himself under the guise of defending “blue-state values” – an increasingly hard sell in these days of counter-revolt against wokeness.
DeSantis and Newsom – The Future Is Now
This might turn out to be the only national debate between the parties. While Trump or any other GOP presidential hopeful would relish the chance to take the stage opposite Biden, it is almost impossible to envision the enfeebled incumbent agreeing to do so. Trump will in turn use Biden’s refusal as yet another campaign issue that demonstrates Biden’s abject weakness. But while Biden and Trump are about the past and present, DeSantis and Newsom are about the future – for better or worse. Neither is likely to capture the big prize both seek in 2024, one transparently as a declared candidate, the other all too cleverly pretending he is merely supportive of his party’s incumbent.
Newsom already crossed a line by meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the pretense that the two merely discussed business, but few are swallowing that explanation whole, detecting the California governor’s desire for the same type of photo-op as when he waltzed into the White House while Biden was on the road, the mouse indeed playing while the cat’s away. And the White House has registered no objection to Newsom’s showboating on the national and international stage.
Gavin Newsom: Too Clever by Half?
It was just a couple of weeks ago that gym-short-and-hoodie-clad Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) came out with a statement calling the bluff of the Californian who is as glib as he is handsome – with both in long supply. “There are two additional Democrats … running for president right now,” said Fetterman, “One is a congressman from Minnesota, the other one is the governor of California, but only one has the guts to announce it.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) spent months trying to convince his party that Biden was too old to run again and would surely lose. When no one listened, he announced his own primary challenge, further magnifying an issue that threatens to effectively disqualify Biden from a second term. Does Newsom, in fact, have the guts to take the Fetterman challenge and primary an obviously beleaguered Biden, knowing he could instantly either energize or dispirit the Democratic base? Barring a rapid change of fortune, will DeSantis ultimately admit defeat after falling behind both Trump and the ascendant Nikki Haley, support the GOP nominee and set his sights on 2028?
One more compelling reason to watch the hour-long debate between DeSantis and Newsom centers around the question of why Biden was so effusive in his recent praise of the California governor – an odd strategy for a president on the ropes being upstaged constantly by the young leader with the movie star looks. In his laudatory speech about Newsom in San Francisco recently, Biden said the golden boy governor “could be anything he wants. He could have the job I’m looking for.” Could that be a hint, a suggestion, the precursor to Newsom announcing this evening that he is entering the race – while Biden finally gives in to the massive bed-wetting in his party and pulls out? Likely not, but the outside possibility of it happening might by itself make this debate must-see TV – if it wasn’t already.