It’s a lot harder to be an anti-Trump politician when Donald Trump isn’t around anymore.
Trump still exists, of course. He’s ensconced in his new post-presidency Elba, toggling back and forth between time on the golf course and threatening his former allies. But, although he will still play a critical role in the Republican Party’s future, he is much less relevant to the daily national conversation. Reasonable people can disagree on whether this is a good or bad thing, but for those politicians who used the last four years to successfully contrast themselves with him, the former president’s absence creates a new set of challenges.
Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California both learned that lesson this past week when the leaders of the nation’s two largest Democratic-controlled states were forced to confront their own difficulties without the accustomed benefit of using Trump as a foil. Throughout the first several months of the pandemic, both men saw their public approval ratings skyrocket, primarily because of the very different approaches they employed to deal with the coronavirus in their states than Trump was following at the national level.
Both Cuomo and Newsom held widely viewed daily briefings for the media and the public, in which they warned of the dangers of the virus’s spread and offered exceedingly detailed summaries of the toll that COVID-19 was taking and their plans for combating it. Meanwhile, Trump was facing wide criticism for his reluctance to admit the dangers posed by the pandemic or to employ more aggressive steps to curb its spread.
Over the spring and summer, when Joe Biden was keeping a low profile after securing the Democratic presidential nomination, the two governors represented the national face of the opposition to Trump’s hands-off approach. Both frequently used their platforms to lambast Trump for his inaction, and both benefited tremendously from the contrast and the criticism.
The two governors hit rough spots in the fall, but the presidential campaign and its aftermath largely overshadowed their more controversial decisions. The goodwill that Cuomo and Newsom had accumulated earlier in the year sustained them even though these more turbulent waters. But now Biden’s approach to the coronavirus is attracting a much more favorable public response than that of his predecessor, and both governors’ difficulties are attracting more attention.
Cuomo’s problems are worse than Newsom’s. Scrutiny regarding his administration’s efforts to hide the number of deaths in New York nursing homes has exploded into a full-blown scandal. The allegations of multiple sexual improprieties that have been raised against him are likely to lead to his impeachment or resignation. It’s hard to see how Cuomo will survive this maelstrom: His best outcome is probably to announce that he will not seek re-election next year and limp to the end of his term.
Newsom’s political standing is much stronger. While a recall election will almost certainly take place later this year, the odds of his surviving that vote and gaining re-election next year are decidedly in his favor.
There may be some unpleasant months ahead for Newsom, but it’s difficult to see a Republican opponent unseating him in such a heavily Democratic state. The wild card is still whether a member of Newsom’s own party decides to enter the race: The greatest threat to him seems to be from the left rather than the right.
But Newsom’s long-delayed State of the State address last week underscored the added difficulty that the governor will face now that Trump no longer occupies such an outsized portion of public and media attention. The governor’s exhortation to the people of California to persevere through the pandemic was somewhat flat without a convenient target in the White House against whom to rally public opinion. (Newsom was also not helped by the depressing visuals of delivering the speech in an empty Dodger Stadium, where he was swallowed up by tens of thousands of unoccupied seats.)
Biden faced similar questions when he took office, and many wondered whether being the “Un-Trump” would be a sufficient political foundation for the new president moving forward. He has already taken the first step out from Trump’s shadow by signing the popular COVID-19 relief bill, and the ambitious nature of his next policy goals will further distance him from his predecessor. But for Newsom, Cuomo and many more of the former president’s strongest detractors, it may be time to replace that aspect of their political identities with something more current.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.