Opinion: ‘That’s a lie!’ ‘You are just jabbering!’ It was heat and not much light in Newsom-DeSantis debate

Photo/the Associated Press / In this combination of photos, Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, at left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaks on Sept. 12, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif. The two debated Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, outside of Atlanta, Ga.
Photo/the Associated Press / In this combination of photos, Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, at left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaks on Sept. 12, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif. The two debated Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, outside of Atlanta, Ga.

The prodigiously hyped debate between Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis was never going to be more than a diversion, a brief sideshow running parallel to the main attraction — the actual campaign for the White House.

California's Democratic governor is not a candidate for president, as he reiterated several more times Thursday night.

Florida's governor is running for the Republican nomination, but doing so poorly that he stooped to participate in a publicity stunt, dressed up as a national policy forum.

Even by those meager standards, "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate," as Fox News breathlessly promoted the cable TV throwdown, proved a dud.

A good debate illuminates issues, parses differences and sheds light on the persona of its participants.

Thursday night's affair was an exercise in affirmation, underscoring much of what we've already grasped, to wit:

› Newsom and DeSantis genuinely despise each other.

› They have vastly different approaches and philosophies to govern their sprawling, variegated states.

› Fox News is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party with little pretense of fairness or balance.

The evening's ringmaster, Sean Hannity, had pledged to be an evenhanded and impartial facilitator of the discussion. But the oh-so-soft questions he gently lofted DeSantis left no doubt where Hannity's rooting interests lay.

Each segment was prefaced with a selective battery of statistics — on crime, gas prices, education, homelessness — that painted California as just a hair's breadth from capsizing and sliding ingloriously into the ocean.

Despite that obvious advantage, it was DeSantis who seemed ill at ease most of the night, looking like a man suffering a hernia as he prepared to face a root canal.

Newsom has taunted DeSantis from long distance for more than a year and plainly enjoyed being able to shiv him up close; a broad grin telegraphed his glee.

The subplot of the evening was Newsom's supposed "shadow campaign," as DeSantis called it, to wrest the Democratic nominating from the aged incumbent, President Biden.

But California's governor was utterly slavish in the role of dutiful party soldier, repeatedly extolling Biden's performance with a rat-a-tat of statistics on falling inflation, rising employment and other favorable barometers.It's highly unlikely that anything said or done on the red-and-blue-themed sound stage outside Atlanta will change the trajectory of the 2024 campaign.

The typical half-life of a political debate — even one among legitimate contenders — is about 24 hours.

The best that can be said is that given an opportunity to extend the forum beyond its scheduled 90 minutes — and Newsom certainly seemed eager to go on — Fox mercifully spared its audience and passed.

Here's hoping for no repeat.

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