My partner once told me about a fight he witnessed between a goat and a dog. They met on the dog’s terrain (the goat had broken loose), but neither animal could figure out why his attacks weren’t working. The goat’s loose skin made the dog’s lunges at its throat ineffective, flummoxing the dog, and the goat couldn’t work out why the dog — in lieu of head-butting back with its horns — kept nipping from beneath.
I thought about that story more than once while watching the debate Fox News hosted last night in Alpharetta, Ga., between California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). It was a noisy, confusing spectacle, with lots of shouting and unclear rules. There was no metric for victory, no shared standard for how to score a point. Carefully worded statistics were wielded like cudgels, repackaged and denied. If other viewers were anything like me, they came away feeling like they’d learned more about nihilism than governance. Clips circulated in the aftermath, as they always do, advertising moments in which DeSantis “schooled” Newsom or Newsom “annihilated” DeSantis, but the 90-minute encounter wasn’t reducible to those pleasing, definitive terms. It was inchoate, mismatched, bizarre.
It’s hardly surprising that the two governors couldn’t come to a consensus, or that a Fox News event tilted right. Far more disorienting was the sense that we couldn’t even — as a country, or even as consumers of television — agree on what a debate is.
The moderator, Fox News personality Sean Hannity, began the evening by announcing he’d be putting his conservatism aside to focus on “fact-based perspectives.” Then he framed each question to depict California in the worst possible light and Florida in the best. Repeatedly saying he had no wish to be a hall monitor, Hannity refused to enforce time limits, but tended to let DeSantis talk over Newsom while preventing the latter from responding.
I’m interested in genre betrayals, so it was interesting, in an academic way, to watch a debate moderator acknowledge the need for impartiality before going “mask-off” almost immediately, ostentatiously choosing a side. Hannity lobbed softballs at DeSantis, asking him (for example) what the odds were that murderous terrorists had gotten into the United States because of President Biden’s border policies (“One hundred percent!” DeSantis happily replied). His most robust challenge to the Florida governor involved raising the latter’s draconian anti-choice measure to gently ask him to explain his thinking. Hannity’s questions to Newsom, by contrast, included asking him to explain why “pornography” was being taught in California schools and “is Joe Biden paying you tonight?”
Hannity was trying to help DeSantis, whose presidential campaign isn’t exactly thriving, but the open favoritism actually hurt the governor by making him seem weak. Eager to showcase his abilities as a fighter, DeSantis needled Newsom with a story about his father-in-law (who moved to Florida) and countered most of his points by loudly calling him a liar. Ironically, DeSantis dealt Newsom the most damage not when he was brandishing a map of feces in San Francisco or agreeing with Hannity’s charts, but when he responded to Newsom’s jeremiad against regressive taxation by pointing out — matter-of-factly, with no sneering — that California’s sales tax and gas prices were both higher than Florida’s.
As for Newsom, he clearly understood that when the ref starts throwing punches, there’s no point in trying to work him. He knew he’d be on the defensive, but spent the evening adjusting his strategy. He started off sidestepping Hannity’s questions entirely to get his own talking points out — including an early slam noting that neither he nor DeSantis would be their party’s nominees for president. (This was Newsom’s advantage and one of the evening’s most disorienting mismatches: When one opponent is running for president and one isn’t, the stakes are wildly different.) Still, the approach felt evasive. By the end, he found more effective tactics, the most piercing of which (to my surprise) turned out to be deeply felt (rather than vitriolic) declarations of sadness and disgust about the way DeSantis treated migrants and other vulnerable populations. “I don’t like the way you demean people. I don’t like the way you demean the LGBT community, I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with, Ron. I really find this fundamentally offensive.”
The two governors were engaged in radically different projects. While DeSantis hoped to dominate a blue-state governor to distinguish himself in a crowded field of candidates, Newsom hoped to embarrass the Florida governor, but clearly also saw himself as a Biden ambassador to Fox News audiences who would only have heard horror stories about the current administration. The disparity between these agendas only enhanced the sense that this “debate” was no such thing. It was Kabuki. The absence of an audience only enhanced a weird sense of intimacy behind the posturing. Everyone on that stage understood perfectly well that the frame they’d agreed to was a fiction.
At that point — when everyone understands that the rules of engagement don’t matter — all you’re looking for is some breakthrough moment capable of puncturing it all.
TV debates have famously done that in the past! Because the 1960 debate between Senator John Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon catapulted the comparatively obscure senator from Massachusetts (whose youth had, up until that point, been regarded as a political liability) into national prominence, there’s an idea that debates are relevant still. That they’re potential game-changers. The story then was that people listening on the radio thought Nixon had won, but viewers saw Kennedy as the victor. The medium redefined the standards for victory.
You could feel those three men last night groping for something similar — a moment that could break through the cheap shots and rote antagonism to produce some new, clarifying consensus on who “won.”
It never came. When the governors weren’t sporting peculiar frozen smiles (usually in response to being insulted) or calling each other liars, they interrupted each other fluidly and often unintelligibly, with each continuing to speak over the other in hopes that their opponent would stop. The lofty goal of comparing Republican and Democratic philosophies of governance receded into the much more primitive project of judging each man’s affect and rhythm as a shouter. I found myself admiring one man’s ability to keep what sounded like a vaguely grammatical sentence going (though I couldn’t quite gauge its contents) while another one spoke. I dinged another when I heard him stumble, mid-spiel, on a particular word. You improvise criteria when there aren’t any, I guess, but I wasn’t sure why I was suddenly grading two grown men on their ability to speak while another person was speaking, too.
Politics aside: Was it good TV?
Well, it wasn’t boring (debates often are) and it’s certainly true that Hannity’s lack of moderation created suspense. But I can’t say I found watching it enjoyable. There is merit in the idea of people on opposite sides of an issue debating it, but that isn’t what last night was.
When the dog fought the goat, everyone was entertained. It made for a good story. But my partner says everyone (including the goat and the dog) walked away from the encounter a little shaken up. No one had won, and it felt like they’d somehow lost something they hadn’t realized was at stake.