Style vs. substance.
If nothing else, last night’s debate between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and California governor Gavin Newsom provided a microcosmic view of the state of play in American politics.
For those of sufficient age, last night’s debate might possibly evoke memories of the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 – the first presidential debate to be televised. Last night in the role of telegenic and glibly articulate John F. Kennedy you had Gavin Newsom. In the role of straight-faced policy wonk Richard Nixon, you had Ron DeSantis.
Style very clearly won over substance in 1960. Kennedy’s youthful appearance coupled with his easiness in front of a camera very likely made the critical difference in what was a very tight election.
The same thing might happen 64 years later if by some twist of events Gavin Newsom winds up as the Democratic nominee in place of an increasingly wobbly Joe Biden. Gavin Newsom is wrong on everything that matters. But he’s good looking and articulate and for many voters, that’s enough.
There is little doubt that Gavin Newsom looks in the bathroom mirror every morning and sees a president looking back at him. The advancement of that aspiration was his reason for agreeing to be there last night.
Ron DeSantis desperately needs a shot of adrenalin for his flagging campaign. Such was his clear motivation for showing up.
Last night’s debate was billed as the “Red State vs. Blue State Debate.” For the life of me, and given that premise, I cannot figure out what exactly it is that’s debatable. By every objective measure, the Red State policies of Ron DeSantis run circles around the Blue State policies of Gavin Newsom.
The numbers tell the story.
- Between July 2019 and July 2022, the latest period for which there are figures, more than a million Californians decamped for other states. During that same time, nearly three quarters of a million people moved to Florida.
- According to the latest IRS data, between 2019 and 2021 California lost $55.7 billion in adjusted gross income due to people leaving the state. In that same period, Florida gained $80.6 billion due to people moving into the state.
- The unemployment rate in California is the second highest in the nation at 4.8 percent. Florida’s unemployment rate is roughly half that at just 2.8 percent.
- State and local taxes come to just over $10,000 per person in California. In Florida, state and local taxes are just over $5,400 per person.
- California has a $31.5 billion budget deficit. Florida has a $17.7 billion surplus.
- On substance, DeSantis’s red state model beats Newsom’s blue state model hands down. On substance, it’s not even close.
But if substance were all that matters, last night’s debate would never have happened and Donald Trump would still be president.
Assuming that despite his best efforts DeSantis won’t be the Republican nominee, last night’s debate is a microcosm. It shows us that style is Gavin Newsom’s (and the Democrats’) only path to victory and Donald Trump’s (and the Republicans’) only path to defeat.