Axios Sneak Peek

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December 01, 2023

Welcome back to Sneak. Smart Brevity™ count: 1,066 words ... 4 minutes.

1 big thing: The Vendetta in Alpharetta

Photos: Joe Raedle; Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces a fraught challenge in tonight's showdown with California Gov. Gavin Newsom — one that's raised scrutiny over the strategic wisdom of debating an opponent who claims he has nothing to lose, Axios' Hans Nichols reports.

What we're watching: DeSantis must make an argument for his leadership that's less about Florida and more about the future, GOP strategists tell Axios. That's a tall order for a face-off billed as "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate" — and for a governor plenty proud of his Florida story.

The big picture: DeSantis' unusual decision to debate Newsom, a skilled orator viewed as one of President Biden's top surrogates, is a risky gambit for the 45-year-old governor seeking to become the new face of the Republican Party.

  • But whether it's a sideshow or a presidential preview, plenty of eyeballs are set to tune in to the live, 90-minute debate moderated by Fox News' Sean Hannity and kicking off at 9pm ET in Alpharetta, Georgia.
  • And after a month of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley climbing in the polls and collecting donors who snubbed DeSantis, the former Yale baseball player needs a hit.

What they're saying: Call it "The Vendetta in Alpharetta." Team DeSantis is gleefully hyping the confrontation with "Tale of the Tape" graphics and paid ads on X.

  • "Gavin Newsom's California is the model for American decline," Andrew Romeo, the campaign's communication director, said in talking points emailed to DeSantis surrogates.

The other side: Newsom is also spoiling for the limelight — and a fight.

  • "I have nothing to lose. I'm not running for president. Period. Full stop. He is. He has a lot to lose. And even if he wins, he loses," Newsom told Axios' Alex Thompson ahead of the GOP debate in California.
  • Newsom's natural disdain for DeSantis will be difficult to hide: "He's unserious, he's so easily distracted," the California governor said. "It's so easy to get under his skin."

Zoom out: Look past the canned and planned one-liners of a primary debate. Ignore the personal animosity and personal insults ("You're just scum," Haley jabbed at Vivek Ramaswamy earlier this month.)

  • On the actual issues, the policy differences on any primary stage are quite small. Candidates tend to echo each other.
  • In a general election debate — especially one where neither side is trying to appeal to centrist voters weeks before election day — it's an entirely different dynamic.
  • Tonight's contest will be short on "yes, but" answers. Instead, it will be defined by "No. Wrong. No."
  • And for DeSantis, he'll receive roughly 50% of the time, instead of waiting for the likes of Ramaswamy or Haley to finish talking.

Be smart: The Fox face-off will resemble every other debate this cycle in one obvious way: Both sides will claim victory.

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2. 🇺🇸 White House treads careful line on Kissinger

Photo: Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images

The death of former Secretary State Henry Kissinger — arguably America's most famous and divisive diplomat — has triggered an outpouring of remembrance, respect and revulsion from current and former U.S. officials.

State of play: Nearly 24 hours after news of Kissinger's death broke, President Biden put out a statement this evening praising Kissinger's "fierce intellect" but noting that "we often disagreed. And often strongly."

  • Biden said he'd never forget receiving his first briefing from Kissinger as a young senator. Some members of Biden's administration, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, continued to seek out Kissinger's counsel.
  • But Kissinger told the New York Post last year that Biden was the only president — dating back to his time as Richard Nixon's national security adviser — who had not invited him to the White House.

What they're saying: Historians, progressives and representatives of countries who suffered from the consequences of Kissinger's policies — including U.S.-backed coups and bombing campaigns — did not mince words about his death.

  • For "huge swaths of the world, [Kissinger's] mind-set carried a brutal message that America has often conveyed to its own marginalized populations: We care about democracy for us, not for them," former Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in the New York Times.
  • "A man has died whose historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery," tweeted Chile's ambassador to the U.S. Juan Gabriel Valdés.
  • There are "few people who have had a hand in as much death and destruction, as much human suffering, in so many places around the world as Henry Kissinger," veteran war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody told The Intercept.

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3. 💥 Santos set to leave with a bang

Santos holds a press conference outside the Capitol this morning. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Today may have marked the final full day in Congress for Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), who faces an expulsion vote tomorrow widely expected to succeed.

Driving the news: The serial fabulist began the day by unveiling his own resolution to expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who pleaded guilty last month to pulling a fire alarm in a House office building.

  • Santos will not be able to offer the privileged resolution on the House floor in two days' time if he's no longer a member.
  • Later in the day, Santos sat down with reporters for a Q&A session, during which he admitted to using "cosmetic Botox and fillers," said he plans to write a book, and left the door open to participating in reality TV shows like "Dancing with the Stars" in the future.

On the House floor, Santos once again aggressively defended himself — saying he has been "been convicted of no crimes" and alleging a "smear campaign."

  • Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) also defended him, pointing out that the only five members ever to be expelled from Congress were either convicted of crimes or participated in the Civil War.
  • House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) are among those who said today they will not vote to expel Santos.

4. 🍽️ Paul saves Ernst

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an ophthalmologist, used the Heimlich maneuver on Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) when she began choking at a Senate lunch today.

  • "Can't help but choke on the woke policies Dems are forcing down our throats. Thanks, Dr. @RandPaul!" Ernst tweeted after the episode.
  • "God bless Rand Paul," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters. "I never thought I'd say that."

Flashback: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) performed the Heimlich maneuver on then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) at a Senate lunch in 2018, breaking her rib in the process.

📬 Thanks for reading this week. This newsletter was edited by Carlos Cunha.