PICTURE IT: two of America’s most powerful governors take the debate stage. One is sporting copious amounts of hair gel. The other may, or may not, be wearing lifted boots to appear taller. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, and Ron DeSantis, his Republican counterpart in Florida, spend 90 minutes trying to convince viewers that their own state represents the very best of America, and that their relative youth and respective flavour of crusading politics are just what the country needs. Donald Trump is heckling both men in ALL CAPS on Truth Social, from his armchair at Mar-a-Lago, having decided not to seek a second term. Joe Biden is looking forward to retirement, secure in the belief that his presidency was a bridge to the next generation. Sean Hannity, of Fox News, does a passable impression of a neutral moderator.
In another universe this could have been a prime-time debate during the 2024 presidential campaign. Instead, Messrs DeSantis and Newsom will face off on Fox News on November 30th for reasons unclear even to the governors themselves. During an interview last month in Los Angeles, your correspondent asked Mr Newsom why Americans should watch a debate between one (floundering) presidential candidate, and a governor who is not (currently) running for anything. “I don’t know they should,” he replied merrily.
Yet governors are not the provincial personalities they used to be. “The governor has long been an underappreciated centre of power in US politics,” says Kristoffer Shields of the Eagleton Centre on the American Governor at Rutgers University. “But that changed a little bit during covid.” In the early days of the pandemic Americans watched their governors deliver regular, often daily, press conferences about the advance of the virus. They became household names. The most outspoken inspired admiration and ire from Americans outside their own states.
There are two ways to look at this event, says Mr Shields: the cynical and the uncynical. Journalists are bound by oath to start with the former. Mr DeSantis is running for president, and in contrast to the earlier imagined scenario, Mr Trump is leading him in the polls by nearly 50 points. Florida’s governor is trying to sell the debate with his Californian counterpart as the next big event in the race for the Republican nomination. Except this time, unlike during the primary debates, he’s the only member of the Republican Party on stage. He won’t have to interrupt whatever spat Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley are having to get a word in.
Mr Newsom is also knee-deep in national politics. He is leading a hopeless campaign to enshrine stricter gun control in the constitution, and has launched his own political action committee to campaign for Democrats in Republican states. He is one of Mr Biden’s loudest defenders. But should the need for a different Democratic nominee arise, it is not hard to imagine the Californian calling his own number.
The two governors have traded barbs from their respective coasts over gender identity, abortion and immigration. (Mr Newsom once went so far as to threaten Mr DeSantis with kidnapping charges for allegedly sending migrants to the Golden State.) The Fox News debate offers them a chance to burnish their national reputations on live TV. All debates are political theatre, but this one threatens to be more like a cage match, the clash of the culture warriors.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the debate as frivolous. California is the most populous state in the country, and Florida ranks third. Taken together, the two are home to some 61m people. The policies of Mr Newsom and Mr DeSantis affect nearly a fifth of all Americans.
The influence of these two mega-states can be felt beyond their borders. California and Florida have become avatars for very different visions of America. They are the standard-bearers for progressivism and anti-woke populism, respectively. And other states are following their leads. Seventeen adhere to California’s vehicle-emissions standards because they are stricter than the federal government’s. Meanwhile PEN America, a free-speech organisation, reckons that a Florida law to limit instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for young pupils has inspired more than two dozen copycat bills in other states.
There are risks for both governors. Should Mr DeSantis prove unable to keep up with Mr Newsom, who seems to relish his new role as Mr Biden’s attack dog, his presidential hopes may sink further. Mr Newsom is walking into the debate knowing that California-bashing is a favourite pastime of both Fox News and Mr DeSantis. When the governor of Florida spoke at the California Republican Party’s convention in September, he told the crowd: “The California model represents more American decline.” He wants to “own the lib”, predicts Mr Newsom, “and talk about homelessness in California and everyone getting U-Hauls to drive to Florida”.
Still, Americans accustomed to hearing about dysfunction in Congress may be surprised to hear just how much states are getting done. If either governor manages to impress, it may not be for nothing. Perhaps the debate is not so much a glimpse of what could have been as a preview of what is to come.■