Gavin Newsom wins Republican primary debate
The ignoble fall of Ron DeSantoid
I didn’t watch the Republican presidential debate last night. I heard it was really bad, and that the moderators advocated for amnesty and asked only kids’ table questions. Apparently one of the moderators barely spoke English and was noticeably stupid. Everyone who watched seems to think they wasted their time. This suits the debate participants well: a group of not very bright GOP has-beens, somewhat mysterious big dollar candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who says most of the right things in a not-quite-trustworthy way, and former presidential contender Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
I saw a few clips of the debate and they seemed terrible. People were shouting over each other. Tim Scott bragged about implementing the Great Replacement of his Senate staff. Nikki Haley established herself as unlikable enough to appeal to the hateful goblin GOP donors who push horrible candidates and policies on the public. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who seemed to be getting fatter and more slovenly by the second, attempted to have a forced mic drop moment.
The worst showing by far, however, was from Ron DeSantis. I’ll confess, I had high hopes about DeSantis as a heir-in-waiting for Trump. By all accounts he is a very competent chief executive for Florida and has improved quality of life substantially for his citizens. The Republican bench is small and leaders who are ready, willing, and able to do good things are hard to come by. Sadly, DeSantis soon fell under the influence of the Never Trump movement, who dumped mountains of cash into the best campaign money can buy. When he finally declared his candidacy after months of passive-aggressive attacks on Trump, it wasn’t exactly surprising. It was surprising, however, just how quickly DeSantis’s unfathomably terrible political instincts went on full display.
DeSantis’s candidacy has been a complete disaster, both for him personally and the country at large. DeSantis’s once golden favorability ratings have tanked. He is a terrible candidate, and his interactions with voters establish him as awkward and abrasive. Trump is manhandling DeSantis in all primary polls, including those in his own state.
DeSantis has managed to turn himself into a vehicle for others. First he became an avatar for the Establishment conservatives who Trump defeated in 2016, repeating bogus attacks on Trump for having moderate and popular views on a number of social issues, now he is a mouthpiece for the Democrats themselves. DeSantis’s debate attacks on Trump for the inflation caused by Biden were quickly cut into an ad by Biden’s team. They love to see a formerly-respected figure with impeccable conservative bonafides like DeSantis echo their increasingly desperate attacks on Trump. DeSantis should have understood that this is how his words would inevitably be used. The fact that he felt compelled to say them to defend himself illustrates why he never should have run to begin with.
Worst of all, DeSantis has established himself as the plaything of California Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom has done terrible things to his state. Having lived in California for several years, I can tell you that although my daily routine was very pleasant, the decline in quality of life caused by Newsom’s policies was very real. DeSantis by all accounts has done a much better job with Florida, and yet finds himself in the position of weakness as Newsom says what everyone is thinking: the DeSantis campaign is a joke.
Newsom, who claims he is not running for President in 2024 (but definitely is), had not one but two viral clips resulting from last night’s debate. In the first, he said:
I think it will be clear that Trump comes out the dominant force after this debate. I mean, this is the XFL, this is JV…
Honestly, I mean, this is maybe, maybe, a vice presidential debate. These guys are getting lapped by Donald Trump. It’s not even close, it’s not even interesting, and I think what’s most interesting to me is, do they recognize that? Or are they actually gonna show up and run against the guy that’s in the way of their prospects to be the nominee? It’s a zero sum game, it’s a binary choice at the end of the day. It’s not a rank choice voting. So either these guys come after the frontrunner and distinguish themselves, or otherwise they’re wasting everybody’s time, and I say this with a lot of respect.
Republicans mock Newsom’s chances. After all, he managed to turn his state into a shithole in the most visible way possible in a short period of time. I think he’s actually the man to beat in 2024. However bad his record may be, the ability to confidently and clearly state forbidden truths is impossibly powerful.
Newsom has previously gotten in hot water for praising Trump’s non-partisan COVID response and Trump personally. Although I’m sure Newsom’s statements, however reasonable they may be on their face, were a cynical move, they show that he has the political instincts that DeSantis lacks. It will be easy for Newsom to establish himself in the public mind as an effective moderate by simply making reasonable arguments in opposition to the far left policies he has passionately defended and implemented in the past.
Newsom’s second viral statement accentuates this difference in instincts further:
Part of me wonders if you know, the fact that he took this debate, the fact that he took the bait in relation to this debate shows that he’s completely unqualified to be United States. That’s my humble first opinion. Why is that? … I mean, why is he debating a guy who’s not even running for president when he’s running for president?
He’s showing up at the Reagan Library, hallowed ground. And he puts out an ad today not for his presidential campaign, but to promote a debate against the governor of California. I mean, this guy’s distracted. So I don’t know that he has it in his heart. I think here’s my personal opinion about Ron DeSantis. He regrets running for president. He made a huge mistake. He listened to his consultants. He bought his own hype. He had this little God complex. I mean, look at the ads themselves. Literally, God created.
I mean, he bought into all this stuff and he quickly regretted it, but he’s stuck. And here’s the problem. You got one chance of first impression. He’s belly flopped. He’s down 30-plus points from where he started. So it’s a terrible situation for him.
Newsom is, unfortunately, completely right here. I say it’s unfortunate because a radical like Newsom, who has a much worse real world record than DeSantis, should not be in a position to point out the obvious weaknesses of DeSantis. The debate is going to be a disaster. DeSantis is stilted and unconvincing on his feet while Newsom is a shameless and charismatic liar. DeSantis has handed Republicans’ biggest threat a golden opportunity to repair his reputation on the national stage.
I cannot believe that no one in the DeSantis camp recognized what a bad idea this was. The decision to accept the debate is made worse by the fact that it’s all for nothing—DeSantis’s chances of becoming President were slim before he announced his candidacy, they’re non-existent now. Trump is the nominee, he has an unprecedented lead in every poll. DeSantis has no hope of improving his position in the debate, and will almost certainly undermine the good work he’s done in Florida over the last few years. This is bad for everyone because the DeSantis model is actually great. DeSantis is important as a symbol of effective and proactive conservative government. If America had just 10 governors like DeSantis, it’s likely that most of our problems would be solved. But, sadly, we don’t have 10 DeSantises, we just have 1 and he can’t seem to stop drowning when he gets out of his depth.
The DeSantis campaign is doomed. It’s doomed not just because the circus of NeverTrump staffers populating it are very stupid, but also because of DeSantis’s terrible political judgment. All the money paid for consultants and shitty websites was spent for nothing. His donors (at least those who genuinely want a Republican to win in 2024) would have been better off burning their money in their front yards.
It’s never too late to stop yourself from making a bad decision. If DeSantis wants to save his reputation and prevent disaster, he has to change course. The only right move is to drop out, announce he supports Trump as the nominee, and cancel his debate with Newsom as soon as possible. This would certainly be embarrassing, it might even end DeSantis’s political career, but it will be far better for everyone than the disaster DeSantis has planned. I think Trump’s people should announce a general amnesty for DeSantis consultants and the other backers of his campaign, no professional retaliation or bad feelings, with the caveat that this has to stop now. There has to be a way to deescalate this, but that has to start with DeSantis getting out of the way of the train that is hurtling towards all of us.
The Conundrum Cluster is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.