It's hard to believe that it was almost 20 years ago that a young, upcoming Senate candidate named Barack Obama mesmerized the Democratic faithful with his nomination speech for Sen. John Kerry at the DNC convention in Boston. His message was one of "the audacity of hope" and a conviction that we are more united as a country than we are divided. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America—there's the United States of America" turned into the foundation for his eventual run for president just four years later. It was almost 25 years ago when Texas Gov. George W. Bush, already considered a front-runner for the 2000 GOP nomination, delivered an equally hopeful message in his 1999 inaugural address in Austin. "Texans," he said, "can show America how to unite around issues that are larger than race or party." 

Today, two of the most high-profile and widely discussed potential presidential aspirants—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D)—gave inaugural addresses that directly challenged the notion of "E Pluribus Unum."

They contend that America is a deeply divided country, not because we aren't committed enough to unity, but because one version of America is the correct one while the other version will lead to America's destruction. 

In his inaugural address, Gov. Newsom argued that blue states like California must remain on the frontlines to fight against "Red state politicians, and the media empire behind them, selling regression as progress, oppression as freedom. And as we know too well, there is nothing original about their demagoguery. All across the nation, anxiety about social change has awakened long-dormant authoritarian impulses. Calling into question what America is to become, freer and fairer … or reverting to a darker past."

California, argues Newsom, isn't just a great place to live because it has a thriving economy and a good quality of life, but because it promotes a "far-reaching freedom agenda. A full-throated answer to those demagogues of division, determined to regress and oppress." Come for the sunshine and Silicon Valley. Stay for the fight against demagogues and nativists.

Across the country in Tallahassee, Gov. DeSantis laid out the ways the Sunshine State thrived over the last couple of years thanks to his fights against Blue State overreach. "When other states consigned their people's freedom to the dustbin," DeSantis said, "Florida stood strongly as freedom's linchpin. When the world lost its mind—when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue—Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world." 

The leaders in blue states, said DeSantis, "have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and attacking law enforcement. They have imposed unreasonable burdens on taxpayers to finance unfathomable levels of public spending. They have harmed education by subordinating the interests of students and parents to partisan interest groups. They have imposed medical authoritarianism in the guise of pandemic mandates and restrictions that lack a scientific basis."

Come to Florida, for low taxes, great beaches and a chance to, as DeSantis put it: "navigate the boisterous sea of liberty rather than cower in the calm docks of despotism." 

In many ways, Newsom and DeSantis are simply following what has become the new normal in politics. Elections aren't just about selecting the best person for the job. They are existential fights for the very heart and soul of the country. DeSantis tells Floridians he's protecting their freedoms from "the threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power." 

Newsom is even more explicit that America should look more like California than like red states such as Florida. "The battle lines are drawn. And yes, once again, it's time for choosing. Let's not forget that policies that started here that were once considered nothing more than romantic possibilities have now become commonplace across the other 49 states." 

But, while partisans will cheer the fights that DeSantis and Newsom are waging, swing voters, as we've seen over these last four years, are more interested in tangible results than existential fights. 

Crying "woke" can help you raise money in conservative circles, but it didn't help Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate. Nor does it tell swing voters how fighting against these forces of political correctness will help make their lives better and safer. 

Democrats get a rousing roar of approval from their own Greek Chorus when they argue, as Gov. Newsom did in his inaugural address, that Republicans "sell fear and panic when it comes to crime and immigration." But, Howard Wolfson, a top political advisor aide to Mike Bloomberg, a former deputy mayor of New York City and one-time executive director of the DCCC, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that Democratic attempts to 'downplay' crime backfired in 2022. "After three decades of falling crime, Democrats had gotten complacent and disconnected and failed to recognize that the bail reforms they passed in 2019, eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, were deeply unpopular," wrote Wolfson. "Fair or not," Wolfson goes on to say, "the Republican message was quite simple: Bail reform passed by Democrats in Albany had created a wave of crime and disorder."

America is more polarized than it was back in 2004 when Barack Obama and George W. Bush made their debuts on the national political stage. The idea of running a campaign on the "audacity of hope" or "compassionate conservatism" feels incredibly outdated. But, we also learned that leaning into the division—as Trump did in his re-election bid in 2020 and GOP Senate candidates in purple states did in their 2022 campaigns—is a losing proposition. 

 

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