Who Really Won in the DeSantis-Newsom Debate

7 minute read
Kleinknecht is a longtime political journalist and author of States of Neglect: How Red-State Leaders Have Failed Their Citizens and Undermined America

If hurling insults, distorting facts, and pandering to Americans’ worst instincts are the hallmarks of leadership, then Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emerged the winner in the debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In a 90-minute debate with Fox News host Sean Hannity as moderator, DeSantis launched blistering attacks on his opponent, calling him a habitual liar and a “slick and slippery politician.” He said Newsom shields himself from his state’s failures by sending his children to private school and dining at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant while his state was on pandemic lockdown.

Among his more preposterous claims were that Los Angeles is in a state of “collapse” and that California knowingly exposes its schoolchildren to books depicting lurid sex acts. He even took out a map purporting to show that almost the entire city of San Francisco is sullied with human feces.

But incivility and distorted facts are not measures of leadership. In the end, DeSantis came off as he always does, mean-spirited and bullying, which Newsom was able to point out in one of his few statements that was not interrupted by DeSantis trying to talk over him.

“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom said. “I understand that. Intimidating and humiliating people—that’s your calling card.”

The debate, which Hannity dubbed the Great Red-Blue State Debate and was held without an audience, was in some respects an exercise in irrelevance, a matchup between a fading presidential candidate and a governor who is currently not running for anything. It seemed mainly designed to shore up DeSantis’s candidacy by allowing him to treat Fox viewers to a national takedown of a rising Democratic star.

Fox has pounded into its audience for years that Californians are fleeing their state to get away from homelessness, public disorder, and out-of-control housing costs, and this was a chance to showcase such misleading propaganda before a wider audience.

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To that end, Hannity, who pledged in his opening statement to be a neutral moderator, proceeded to load every question against California, displaying charts that were always negative toward the Golden State and often included misleading facts.

For instance, his chart showing that California has higher crime than Florida was meaningless since the FBI’s crime reporting is currently in transition and many municipal police departments are not even sharing data. One of the few measures of crime that is reliable, the Centers for Disease Control’s data on homicide mortality, shows that Florida has a higher murder rate.

What was missing from Hannity’s charts was the raft of data showing that Florida ranks below California in most measures of social and economic well-being. California has higher median income and greater educational attainment. The Golden State has lower rates of cancer deaths, infant mortality, teen births, accidental deaths, and suicide, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, Californians also live longer than Floridians.

The health statistics are hardly a surprise since Florida, one of only 10 states that has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, ranks fifth lowest among the 50 states in the percentage of its citizen with medical insurance, 11.2% compared with 6.5% in California.

Health care was not even mentioned in the debate. With Hannity making no effort to be what he called a “hall monitor” and stop the debate from degenerating into indecipherable bickering, Newsom had little opportunity to raise substantive issues and was on the defensive almost the entire time.

DeSantis was able to deride California’s economy with almost no challenge from Newsom or Hannity. “They tax too much. They regulate too much. It is not a good climate for business,” DeSantis said.

But the numbers tell a different story. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, California’s real gross domestic product in 2022, on a per-capita basis, was 48% higher than Florida’s. California’s real per-capita GDP grew by 16.6% between 2017 and 2022, compared with Florida’s growth of 13.1%.

California’s superior economy stands out in more ways than just GDP. Matthew Winkler, former editor and chief of Bloomberg News, pointed out in a 2021 essay that California’s economy roared out of the pandemic by adding more than 1.3 million people to its non-farm payrolls between April 2020 and June 2021, more than any other state. In the same period, California’s household income increased by $164 billion, more than Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania combined

California’s economic activity has outpaced Florida’s at the very time that the Sunshine State’s two recent conservative governors, DeSantis and Rick Scott, have been cutting taxes and curtailing the regulation of business—not exactly a marquee advertisement for the superiority of red-state governance.

There can be no doubting that California has its share of challenges. Soaring housing prices, the highest in the nation, have produced a wide gulf between the state’s richest and poorest citizens and have indeed prompted many working people to decamp for other states. The California Department of Finance estimates that California had a net loss of nearly 600,000 people from 2020 to 2023, while Florida added an estimated 655,000 people in roughly that same period.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, and at the municipal level, spent decades trying to shield residential communities from multi-family housing, the “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) effect run amuck, and that helped produce the affordability crisis. In 2016, the McKinsey Global Institute found that the housing shortage was costing California an annual $160 billion in lost economic output, and it recommended the construction of 3.5 million homes by 2025. Despite an aggressive effort to promote housing construction, the state has not even come close to that number.

But California differs from Florida and other red states in its willingness to confront its problems and work toward building a better society, rather than simply catering to corporations and wealthy donors. For instance, between 2018 and 2022, California spent $17.5 billion to combat homelessness.

Newsom said homelessness has been an issue in California for decades but that his administration is making substantial progress in dealing with the problem, taking 60,000 off the streets during his tenure.

By contrast, DeSantis has a poor record in attempting to improve the lives of Floridians, especially those without seven-figure incomes. His governorship has mainly been about attacking “woke” politics, undermining public education with one of the nation’s largest voucher programs, and demonizing immigrants. Florida has the stingiest unemployment benefits in the country, ranks toward the bottom of the 50 states in teachers’ salaries and per-pupil funding, and ranks 43rd in funding for long-term elder care, despite being a mecca for retirees. DeSantis opposed an increase of the state’s minimum wage when it was only $8.65 an hour.

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The governor boasts about Florida having no personal income tax and low corporate tax rates, but never mentions that the state’s revenues come mainly from sales and excise taxes, which fall hardest on the poor and middle class. A 2018 study by the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that Florida had the third-least equitable tax system in the country, with the poorest 20% of the state’s residents paying 12.7% of their income in taxes, compared with 4.5% paid by the top 4% of earners.

Newsom did manage to point out Florida’s inequitable tax structure, but his statements on the issue were almost lost amid his opponent’s constant interruptions. Newsom’s finest moments came when he was able to characterize DeSantis’s incivility toward so many of his citizens.

“I don’t like the way you demean people,” he told DeSantis. “I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ community. I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with, Ron.”

It was one of the few issues on which DeSantis had no response.

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