Newsom’s moves—and those of other blue-state governors who have taken the lead in confronting the crisis in the face of the Trump administration’s failures—are the sort of decisive action that Americans might have more readily expected from the federal government. From the Pacific Rim to the Northeast, the blue states have leapt early into the breach with strong measures on social distancing, determination to ramp up testing, and carefully considered plans for returning to some semblance of a normal in calibrated phases. The White House has been forced to play catch-up.
Newsom’s approach is also the clearest sign yet that California’s exceptionalism—its longtime self-image as the place that imagines how the future will look and work, for aerospace and computing and entertainment—may well be the new American exceptionalism. How the state responds to this massive economic, social, and health-care challenge could prove that self-image accurate—or shatter it entirely.
Read: An unprecedented divide between red and blue America
Overall, California appears to have succeeded in sharply limiting the spread of the virus, though the state remains substantially under-tested, so the statistics may not be as encouraging as they seem. As of yesterday, 31,675 cases had been confirmed statewide, and 1,178 deaths—compared with 247,512 cases and 14,347 deaths in New York State.
Newsom’s acting so unilaterally, in opposition to Washington, does hold some risks. California taxpayers remit about 15 percent of individual contributions to the U.S. Treasury, yet California is, in the end, only a state, responsible to and dependent on federal laws and largesse like any other. It can buy equipment, and influence world markets, but it can’t set national trade or economic policy. But it’s easy enough to imagine a red state charting a comparably independent course against a future Democratic administration in Washington—one that the liberals who are applauding Newsom today might oppose.
Still, Newsom has so far won widespread praise, not only for his response to the virus crisis, but for his articulation of an alternative vision to Donald Trump and the Republicans’ approach to government, on issues including auto emissions and air pollution, homelessness and health care.
Last week, Newsom and his fellow Democratic governors, Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington—like six of their East Coast counterparts—announced that they would collaborate on a joint blueprint for reopening their states’ economies, one that would outline clear medical and scientific indicators for when it be safe to begin a gradual return to more normal life. They pledged a particular effort to protect vulnerable populations in places such as nursing homes, and to create a system to test, track, and isolate COVID-19 patients even after the broader restrictions are lifted.