Column: Is Gavin Newsom running for president? Or is he just desperate for attention?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been trading presidential-campaign-style jabs. But neither is a formally declared 2024 candidate. (Associated Press)

Is he or isn't he?

With California Gov. Gavin Newsom a seeming shoo-in for reelection, the political world has been obsessed with the possibility of Newsom making a 2024 run for president.

The Democrat has stoked speculation by repeatedly baiting Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, an all-but-certain White House candidate if he, too, wins an expected second term in November.

It's hard to find agreement these days. Things are no different at the Los Angeles Times. Political columnist Mark Z. Barabak is convinced Newsom isn't really running for president at this point. California columnist Anita Chabria insists he is.

Here, they try hashing it out:

Barabak: Anita, we've been going back-and-forth on Newsom for a while. In one of your emails you came up with a fabulous idea for a reality TV show. Since we're sharing this space, could we go halfsies on residuals?

Chabria: You can have a producer credit, and a couple tickets to the premiere. I say we lock Newsom and DeSantis in a house, and whoever wins the most TikTok challenges gets to be president. Vice President Kamala Harris is welcome, and former President Trump too.

We can invite President Biden, but we'll have to make sure there aren't too many stairs.

But given the way Newsom and DeSantis are going at it already, I am mystified by your take that Newsom isn’t running for president. Do you seriously believe that?

Barabak: I think their pretty-boy competition for control of the powder room and vanity mirror would, by itself, make for must-watch TV. And another thing I like about your idea: no muddled Iowa caucus results, no debate over presidential debates, and none of that business of the electoral college overriding the popular vote.

But even so, yeah, I do believe that Newsom isn't running for president. At least not in full-on mode.

Chabria: He's paid for billboards on abortion rights in Texas, run mocking advertisements in Florida, pledged $100,000 to DeSantis' opponent and challenged him to a national debate.

My teenage daughters would describe Newsom and DeSantis as "pick me boys," desperate for attention and equally desperate to pretend they're not. It's Newton's Third Law of Modern American Politics: Every loudmouth sparks an equal and opposite loudmouth.

I know you have your own scientific theory on this. So let's have it.

Barabak: You’re familiar with Schrödinger's cat?

Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, posited that if a cat was placed in a box with a speck of radiation and the box was kept sealed, we wouldn’t know if the cat was dead or alive until the box was opened. Thus, the cat was both dead and alive.

I think of Newsom as Schrodinger’s candidate: He’s both running for president and not running for president.

He's definitely trolling for attention. And maybe positioning himself to run for president if the opportunity were to arise.

Chabria: Wanted, dead or alive. Really dating myself with a Bon Jovi joke.

Here's the thing. If Biden runs, game over, right? No one with a real chance is going to challenge him for his party's nomination. But if he doesn't, knives out. Unless you're Jerry Brown, you get one, maybe two shots at running for the White House.

Barabak: Well, Trump says he may give it a third shot. And there's Harris to consider. But go on.

Chabria: Newsom isn't deferring to Harris or anyone else. He can't. He's built this popular persona as the Democrat with a punch, but he's termed out of office. So where can he go where he keeps his momentum and waits out eight years? Not a lot of options, and it's entirely possible his hairline will have receded by 2032 if he waits.

Barabak: One word: Implants.

And yes, it's tough to run for president once you leave office, though ex-California Gov. Ronald Reagan managed quite well in 1980.

We at least agree that Newsom won't take on Biden. That would probably be suicidal, quite likely costing Biden a second term and killing any hopes Newsom might have of a subsequent run for president, being a spoiler and all.

Chabria: Don't mess with Dark Brandon — who would have thought our septuagenarian president could turn his detractors' taunts into an effective meme?

Barabak: I also doubt Newsom would take on Harris. Like it or not — and many Democrats don't — Harris is the front-runner for the nomination if Biden stands aside, given her position as vice president and base of support among Black women, who are the party's backbone.

Now, if Harris were to stumble, which is not hard to imagine, Newsom might swoop in. Kind of like Bobby Kennedy in 1968, after Eugene McCarthy took out President Lyndon Johnson.

Chabria: I love the thought of a Black-South Asian female president. Love. It. But I can't agree that Harris needs to stumble for Newsom to have a shot.

I think it's the opposite. He's got only his own feet to trip over. He's positioned himself not just as a viable candidate but as a hero in a time of need, when our democracy is in peril from a bunch of fascist morons in red baseball caps who are apparently willing to do a nouveau Nazi salute with no regrets. Newsom is standing up for the values of an America under attack. His chances, I think, depend on how much that fascism advances or dissipates before 2024.

If somehow we get our democracy back on track, Harris has an advantage. But if this authoritarianism, with its overt white Christian nationalism and real ability to curtail rights, continues to grow (and I think it will), Newsom has smartly crafted himself as an in-your-face fighter while Harris is stuck in Biden's shadow.

I am Gavin Newsom and I approve this message. Kidding.

Barabak: Well I, for one, am not ready to outfit Newsom with that white-knight armor. I think there will be plenty of competition for the savior-of-our-nation/save-American-democracy mantle.

Chabria: Fair. Not hard to see someone like Pete Buttigieg, Gretchen Whitmer or Elizabeth Warren making the same Champion of the Republic play when the time is right.

Barabak: And, again, I just don't see him taking on Harris, a frenemy since their days coming up together in San Francisco politics. If Newsom did, I think that could prove just as suicidal as challenging Biden.

Here's why: If he challenged Harris and she won the Democratic nomination but lost the White House, many would blame Newsom. Bye-bye future presidential hopes.

If, somehow, Newsom won the nomination, he'd go into the general election leading a deeply divided Democratic Party. Rightly or not, many would say it was unfair, racist and misogynistic of him to stand in Harris' way. I bet a good number of those folks would stay home come November, or vote third party. Bye-bye White House.

Chabria: But if Trump has taught us anything, it's that the old rules don't apply, and I don't think we are going to have the luxury of withholding a vote if we don't like the candidate. We're coming up on an election that will be unlike any other, because the far right will either win, or claim the election was stolen.

So people who believe in our system of government, regardless of party or distaste for a candidate, need the Democratic nominee to win by an indisputable amount — making this more about the primary than the November election. I think that Dr. Pimple Popper could be the Democratic option and those of us fond of democracy would be lining up to vote for her.

Barabak: Dr. Pimple Popper? Ick.

One other thought regarding a Newsom candidacy. All the ego-stroking will-he-or-won't-he media coverage ends the instant he enters the race. Then it's all about his record as governor, San Francisco mayor and the things — homelessness, obscene housing prices, sanctuary cities, open-air drug use— that critics use to portray our beloved Golden State as a dystopian hellhole.

That might not deter Newsom, but he's kidding himself if he thinks the campaign will be anything other than vicious and ugly.

Chabria: Yep. A real campaign is far less fun than the tough-guy act we're seeing right now. But if opportunity knocks, sounds like we both think he will answer.

Barabak: Agreed. Originally, I was going to suggest we get the The Times to rent us a mansion, where we could carry on this debate under the same roof, Newsom-DeSantis style.

I would insist, however, that I get control of the powder room and vanity.

Chabria: Fine. But bring your own hair spray.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.