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From the Center

It is statistically unlikely that many of you watched last week’s televised shouting match between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his California counterpart Gavin Newsom. But even if you missed it (or watched, processed and quickly forgot about Fox News’ (Right bias) efforts to pit the two chief executives against each other), the residue of the unappetizing exchange is worth a few minutes of reflection before we wash our hands of it and move on. Because underneath a fairly useless 90 minutes of name-calling between two men -- who Newsom correctly appraised by saying that “neither of us will be our party's nominee in 2024” -- was a revealing look at where our nation’s politics may be headed in a post-Trump era.

The unusual and misnamed “debate” involved two politicians who are not running against each other, which is the reason that politicians usually debate. Because Newsom and DeSantis were not competing for votes, there was little incentive for either to expend any effort to attract support from voters who weren’t already secured in their respective partisan camps. And so neither governor really bothered to try to reach beyond their bases to communicate with unaligned members of the audience. The result was exhilarating for true believers on either side, who got to watch their hero make nasty comments to a political foe. For the rest of us, it was a depressing reminder of how polarizing our nation’s politics have become.

DeSantis and Newsom are both talented politicians who won sizable re-election victories last year. They represent diametrically opposite governing philosophies in two of the nation’s largest and most politically polarized states. Their approaches to jobs, taxes, education, health care, homelessness, abortion and countless other issues could not be more different. Watching the two of them discuss why they govern the way they do and how their decisions have affected the populations of their respective states could have been a fascinating conversation about how liberal and conservative leaders take on difficult challenges.

Such a program took place roughly a half century ago, when another California governor, Ronald Reagan, appeared on screen with New York Senator Robert Kennedy to answer questions from a panel of college students. Neither Reagan nor Kennedy expended much effort criticizing the other and instead actually answered the students’ questions in the context of their respective world views.

But that’s not the way politics works anymore. Kennedy and Reagan were both already considering presidential campaigns of their own, and both recognized that an event like this one would give them a chance to showcase their knowledge of substantive policy matters and demonstrate their abilities to lead a country during a fractious and divided time. DeSantis and Newsom live in a different era, and both knew that the best way to advance their presidential ambitions was to demonize their opponent in as mean, spiteful and vitriolic a manner as possible. Both men knew that exciting their own loyalists at the expense of the other participant was the path toward party leadership and a possible future nomination.

To be fair, neither Newsom nor DeSantis created this world. They just live in it, and they have learned how to leverage these new rules for their own political gain. Donald Trump didn’t invent these rules either. He simply possessed both the skills and the shamelessness to take advantage of a newly configured political landscape before anyone else did.

For the last eight years, since Trump rode this combative and belligerent attitude to the White House, many have speculated whether his behavior was a forerunner as to how politics would be conducted in the future or just an aberration that occurred as voters were still learning how to navigate a social media-driven campaign environment. There have been plenty of Trump imitators in both parties, most of whom have struggled to duplicate his success. (Vivek Ramaswamy and Robert Kennedy Jr. are both about to learn how quickly voters tire of this type of act.)

But DeSantis and Newsom are not gadflies. They are not populist insurgents. Both are longtime public servants who presumably understand that governing is much more than uttering vicious soundbites. But both men want to be president, and both seem to believe that performative antics will help them get there. Let’s hope that at least one of them finds a better way.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at:

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

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