When Gavin Newsom debates Ron DeSantis Thursday night on Fox News, voters might finally hear a serious discussion of an issue that most politicians and journalists have wanted to forget: the disastrous mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic. For voters contemplating the 2024 presidential election, that issue is vital, as Covid was by far the most revealing test of leadership over the past four years—not just for those two governors, but also for Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
With the possible exception of the Great Depression, no domestic crisis of the past century and a half has been more catastrophic for the nation’s social fabric and economy than the Covid pandemic. The Covid virus was much less deadly than the 1918 Spanish flu virus, but Americans suffered vastly more collateral damage this time due to lockdowns and other unprecedented suspensions of fundamental liberties.
As California’s governor, Newsom was the nation’s most zealous Covid authoritarian. His state was the first to lock down and the last to end its state of emergency. Newsom closed parks, beaches, and playgrounds, along with businesses and schools; he outlawed church gatherings for nearly a year, until the Supreme Court overturned the ban. Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research ranked California among the slowest states to recover economically from the crisis and dead last in providing in-school instruction to students during the pandemic.
Early this year, Newsom tried to defend his policies and attack those of DeSantis by claiming that California’s cumulative Covid mortality rate was significantly lower than Florida’s. But this was a false comparison. When properly adjusted for the age of each state’s population (Florida has a higher percentage of vulnerable elderly people), the states’ Covid mortality rates show little or no difference. When further adjusted for each state’s relative prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and other risk factors, Florida’s Covid mortality rate is significantly lower than California’s, as a rigorous analysis in the Lancet concluded earlier this year. A research team from six universities calculated that Florida had the 12th-lowest state Covid mortality rate, while California had the 15th-highest.
In an NBC interview in September, Newsom switched tactics, conceding that in retrospect he would have adopted different policies. “I think all of us in terms of our collective wisdom, we’ve evolved,” he said. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We’re experts in hindsight. We’re all geniuses now.” But he’s wrong about that, too. Plenty of useful information was available early in the pandemic, but he and most other leaders ignored it. They still haven’t learned from their mistakes, which is why California and the Biden administration continue pushing harmful mask and vaccine policies that have been rejected throughout Europe.
While it’s true that political leaders had to contend with uncertainties and terrible guidance from the public-health establishment, it was their job to consider policies’ overall social costs and benefits, not just the daily Covid case count that obsessed the media and the Centers for Disease Control. Elected officials had a duty to defend citizens’ rights against narrowminded bureaucrats and to lead calmly and rationally, protecting and reassuring Americans instead of panicking them into losing their livelihoods and surrendering their liberties.
Newsom flunked this test of leadership. So did Donald Trump and Joe Biden. As president, Trump initially opposed lockdowns, instinctively (and correctly) concluding that the damage would be too great, but he lacked the discipline to analyze the evidence or control Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Birx would later boast of having tricked Trump into locking down by pretending that the lockdowns would last only 15 days, then working to ensure they remained in place long-term. Trump later consulted scientists advocating sound policies, but he neglected to follow their advice. He failed to constrain, much less fire, Fauci and Birx, as he and his advisers feared a potential media firestorm in an election year.
Biden failed even more miserably. The president retained Fauci and promoted him to be the White House’s chief medical advisor. While the Trump administration had urged schools to reopen, the Biden administration succumbed to teacher unions’ demands and claimed unprecedented powers to control citizens’ medical decisions.
Evidence that vaccination would slow the virus’s spread never existed, but Biden nevertheless mandated vaccination for federal employees—and tried mandating it for employees at private companies, too, until the Supreme Court stopped him. In Europe, people who had acquired natural immunity were exempted from vaccine mandates, but in the United States, they were fired from their jobs and discharged from the military for refusing to submit to the Biden administration’s irrational decrees.
Under Biden, the United States remains an international outlier in its cruel and reckless treatment of children. Even during the worst of the pandemic, European countries and the World Health Organization recommended against masking children under six, and many countries exempted from their masking protocols schoolchildren under 12. But the CDC insisted on masking everyone starting at age two, and it still recommends that toddlers be masked in areas with high transmission rates.
Vaccines were generally not recommended in Europe for children under five, and some countries refused to do so for children under 12. As the pandemic waned and virtually the entire population acquired antibodies, some European countries stopped even offering vaccines to teenagers and to young and middle-aged adults because of the minuscule benefits and risk of severe side effects. Yet Biden’s CDC continues to push vaccines and additional boosters to everyone over six months old.
Newsom has consistently endorsed the CDC’s recommendations and gone still further. His office hailed California as the first state to mandate masks for schoolchildren and vaccines for state workers. Newsom even announced a vaccine mandate for all schoolchildren in kindergarten and above, which infuriated parents but was fortunately never enforced (and later quietly allowed to lapse). He also signed the nation’s first law subjecting doctors to discipline by the state’s medical board if they presented their patients with Covid “misinformation,” but a federal judge blocked this assault on free speech, and the legislature eventually repealed it.
Meantime, DeSantis went along with the early lockdowns, but he was one of the few governors to question “the science” and carefully weigh the benefits of lockdowns and other mandates against their economic and social costs. He soon recognized the folly of the computer models used to justify lockdowns, seeing that actual trends in Florida bore little resemblance to the modelers’ doomsday projections. He sought advice from scientists who challenged the CDC orthodoxy—and who were surprised to find a politician already well-versed in the latest scientific literature on Covid. Florida was one of the first states to end its lockdown, at a time when Trump was still warning against the dangers of reopening. DeSantis required public schools to remain open and banned vaccine passports and mask mandates for children and adults.
The national and international media pilloried the Florida governor for his supposedly dangerous policies, dubbing him “DeathSantis.” He endured fierce criticism from Democrats and the public-health establishment during Covid outbreaks in the state. But he persisted, and as it became clear that Florida’s statewide mortality rate was lower than the national average, the critics mostly chose to ignore the state and its success story.
A few critics have continued to fault DeSantis for his stance on vaccines, accusing him of rejecting the CDC’s recommendations in order to pander to anti-vax voters. But Florida, which refused to recommend vaccinating healthy children and currently recommends against boosters for healthy adults under 65, has been following policies similar to those of European health agencies—which, unlike the CDC, have prudently weighed the risks of myocarditis and other rare but serious side effects. Booster shots for people without risk factors are currently recommended only for the elderly across Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and other countries.
Thanks to the decisions made by DeSantis and Newsom, Florida’s economy recovered quickly during the pandemic, while California’s languished. If California’s unemployment rate during 2021 had matched Florida’s, 500,000 fewer Californians would have been out of work—and many Californians wouldn’t have fled to Florida for jobs and freedom.
The mainstream press has largely given Newsom and other Democrats a pass on their pandemic policies, perhaps in hopes that voters will forget how much needless suffering those policies inflicted on the nation. But on Thursday evening, in the debate moderated by Sean Hannity, Newsom and DeSantis will presumably have an opportunity to explain how and why they responded as they did to the greatest leadership challenge of their careers. Viewers can draw their own conclusions.
Photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images (left) / Jim Vondruska/Getty Images (right)