Melinda Henneberger: Govs. Newsom and DeSantis both believe in the state’s power to tell us how to live

Tribune Content Agency

The two governors who are most successfully hawking their competing worldviews on the national stage right now both have big ideas, big egos and — as they love to point out — big hair.

But last week, we were reminded more of the differences between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and of why, for all of our own guy’s shortcomings, we have by far the better deal.

Newsom announced that he wants to dramatically expand the number of treatment beds available for unhoused people with a mental illness or addiction. We all know this is necessary, and that it will be difficult. Newsom said he is pursuing a statewide initiative that would go before voters in 2024 to “modernize how California treats mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness.”

Every single Californian would benefit from such an expansion.

Newsom also announced his plans to turn San Quentin, home to the country’s largest death row, from a maximum-security prison into a rehabilitation and education facility within the state prison system.

“We hope this will be a model for the nation, a model for the world,” he said. “This is about stretching people’s minds about what we’re capable of doing and reducing recidivism in the state.”

This, too, would benefit everyone in California and beyond, since our current failure to even try to rehabilitate those we instead throw away costs us on every level.

DeSantis, meanwhile? He stopped by the Reagan Library to continue his “war on woke,” for the sole purpose of keeping the already furious far-right in ecstasy. Neither he nor the mentor he wants to eclipse, Donald Trump, has led the extremists in a very long time; instead, they are followers.

The proof of this is that DeSantis used to hold a rational, helpful view of vaccines, but has, with the presidency in view, caved to those advocating for freedom from vaccination. He also used to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin, but now he’s joined the pro-Putin wing of the GOP, dismissing Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine as “a territorial dispute,” and saying Ukraine itself is not one of America’s “vital national interests.” In this view, democracy isn’t one, either.

Who are these moves intended to help? As when DeSantis used immigrants as props for a political stunt and attempted to sanitize history taught in Florida schools to such an extent that a textbook removed all mentions of race even from a lesson on Rosa Parks, we can’t think of anyone who stands to benefit beyond DeSantis himself.

There is one surprising area of similarity between the two governors, though: Both clearly believe in the power of the state to tell us how to live. Whether you see that as an overreach used to depend on whether or not you were a conservative believer in small government.

Now, it only depends on who is in office, and what the state is telling us.