When Fox News host Sean Hannity got California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to agree to debate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) back in June, he pitched it like this: “I’ll say, ‘Governor Newsom, Governor DeSantis: economy.’ That’s the only word I’m going to throw out. … I’ll moderate it that way, and you have my word I’ll moderate it that way.”
That is not the way Hannity moderated it on Thursday night.
And a debate format that otherwise had promise — and would actually seem worth pursuing in the increasingly siloed body politic — suffered for it.
Fox News billed the clash between Newsom and DeSantis as the “Great Red vs. Blue State Debate,” a chance to compare the governing philosophies of two prominent governors of large states who could both plausibly be president one day.
Hannity pitched it months ago to DeSantis as “a debate that highlights what are political and philosophical divides in this country.”
“It’s kind of widely known that I am a conservative,” Hannity added at the outset Thursday night. “However, tonight, I will be moderating this debate. I will not be part of the debate.”
What we instead got was largely a food fight over relative statistics Hannity selected that, almost without fail, put California in a more negative light than Florida. Newsom was repeatedly pressed on the disparities, with the questions framed in unfavorable ways. DeSantis faced difficult questions only from his debate opponent, with Hannity repeatedly tossing him softballs and even volunteering him defenses.
The first question was about Americans “leaving blue states in droves in favor of red states.” The second topic began with Hannity asking about how Newsom “obviously” has a “philosophy which is higher taxes.”Hannity set up a segment on Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law by asking DeSantis, “Should schools be focusing on reading, writing, math, science, history, computers and maybe leaving values … to the parents?” (This is effectively the talking point DeSantis has long used to justify the law.)Hannity summarized President Biden’s approach to illegal immigration during the 2020 campaign as “Let them come.”When Newsom brought up book banning in Florida, Hannity volunteered for DeSantis that perhaps this was a local issue rather than a state one.Hannity cited a book describing gay sexuality and asked Newsom whether it was “appropriate for school districts to teach kids” that. Newsom responded that schools don’t actually teach such books as part of their curriculum.Toward the end, Hannity said, “Joe Biden has experienced what I believe to be significant cognitive decline. … Is Joe Biden experiencing this cognitive decline?”Hannity also zeroed in on crime data, gas prices and education by using statistics that cast Florida in a more favorable light than California. About the only stat used that was favorable to California was its lower property tax rate, with Hannity emphasizing “everything else is higher.”On two occasions early in the debate, DeSantis brought up statistics comparing California with Florida on unemployment and covid death rates. In both cases, Hannity soon produced a chart on precisely the data point DeSantis wanted to focus on and asked the governors to weigh in again.
There’s certainly a place in this and any debate for statistics. The problem is that it basically amounted to pulling stats devoid of context — things like trends over time and adjusting for California’s larger population, for example — in the obvious service of arguing that blue California is worse than red Florida. And it wasn’t subtle. The fact that Hannity had graphics chambered that made precisely the points DeSantis had just made was telling.
But more than that, the event was a missed opportunity to get at what was supposed to be the focus of the debate: not whether Florida or California is better, but how the Republican approach to governance compares to the Democratic one — how the two governors justify and explain their divergent approaches and results.
Instead of positing that Newsom’s philosophy is “obviously” higher taxes, perhaps ask him about why he thinks government should have a larger role in providing services than Republicans do. Instead of pitching Democrats as open-borders supporters, ask Newsom how the asylum process should be changed. (Newsom even volunteered that it was “broken,” but Hannity didn’t follow up on that.)
Instead of serving DeSantis favorable framings and statistics and asking him to comment on them, ask him about fellow Republicans’ criticisms that he’s too anxious to wield government power to wage culture wars — an increasing trend in certain corners of the party. Instead of asking whether comprehensive immigration reform will happen, as Hannity did, maybe ask what specific changes should be made.
It’s tempting to view what transpired on Thursday night as an indictment of the underlying concept of such a debate. It carried echoes of how the CNN show “Crossfire” fell apart when it devolved into partisan bickering rather than good-faith ideological debates. The lure of turning these things into spectacles and fights is strong — both for the hosts and their ratings and for the debaters and their political prospects.
But if nothing else, perhaps it whetted people’s appetites for more productive, philosophical debates — debates more in line with how this one was supposed to be conducted.