Gavin Newsom’s Next Act | Washington Monthly
The midterm elections had some clear winners, starting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose in-your-face politics and wide margin of victory continued to impress Republican donors. With less attention from the media pack, California Gov. Gavin Newsom cruised to an election victory as decisive as DeSantis’ (around 59 percent for both) — giving his brand of Democratic politics a major jolt of validation.
Newsom took on DeSantis with a series of public taunts this year on the bet that the trolling policy was a growth stock. DeSanti’s abusive treatment of migrants, unfortunate battles with Disney and demagoguery of the trans community sparked a response from the California governor, who ran ads in Florida’s media markets urging libertarian citizens to move to his state. The investment paid off, leaving Newsom as one of the few Democrats in a position to spar with the pugilistic Florida governor and get anywhere.
Newsom, I expect, is just getting started, but not in the way many national forecasters have projected. He will continue to have fun taking pictures of the strutting self-caricature in Florida for the simple reason that so far it has worked.
Newsom’s tactics, from challenging DeSantis to a debate to running ads in Florida, may have been written off in Beltway journalism circles as “obvious” preparation for a Newsom presidential run in 2024 should Joe Biden decline to seek another term.
But that is highly unlikely. A former Democratic governor I spoke to about Newsom recently said that Newsom knows that an opportunity to run for president next year is highly unlikely. First, he knows that Biden plans to run again, barring unforeseen developments. If Biden doesn’t run, Newsom’s fellow Californian, Vice President Kamala Harris, would earn the respect of putting together her own choice — and would, I’m told, have endorsements not just from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina royal whose endorsement turned out to be so central for Biden in 2020, but possibly for Barack Obama as well. Newsom cannot try to roll over Harris, the next in line and an African-American woman when African-American women are essential to the party. No, Newsom is exploring the art of the political hack, as we like to call it here in Northern California, as he understands that nothing else cuts through autopilot journalism and the amygdala overload of social media.
That’s why the former governor told me, if you’re Newsom, “why not have fun?”
Few were surprised here in California when Newsom firmly pledged to serve out his four-year term.
This brings us back to Newsom’s attempt at what everyone in Silicon Valley used to call “disruption.” As Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne Jr. wrote earlier this fall, Newsom stood up for the basic democratic value of fighting for what you believe in instead of letting the maddening mad energy of the MAGA right run wild and “earned the gratitude of many in his party who are tired of being pushed around.” Newsom told Dionne, “I’m trying to change the narrative because I think they’re dominating the narrative.”
The best way to do that is through political hacking. To the public, “hacking” mainly involves infiltrating a computer system and collecting data. Hackers themselves see what they do much differently. I will never forget attending a hacker convention in the Netherlands for Wired.com in August 2001 and listened to the testimony of Chaos Computer Club co-founder Wau Holland, who can be called one of the founders of the hacker movement.
A hacker, Holland believed, always sought to influence public opinion through timely actions that played off ill-founded beliefs. As I wrote in San Francisco Chronicle, in 1984 Holland and another hacker found a security hole in Germany’s archaic Btx network, which they pointed out to the authorities – and were ignored. To make their point, the pair hacked into the system using the Hamburg savings bank password – and ran up the equivalent of about $50,000 in credit to the CCC account. Then they went to the media with the story, which caused quite a stir in West Germany.”
For Trump and his fellow MAGA politicians, politics is poll-driven entertainment for money, and it takes a certain amount of flair—and fearlessness—to combat it. Newsom’s barbs at DeSantis — like President Biden’s unfairly rejected speeches about the importance of fighting for democracy — seem far more in line with where the voters turned out to be than the media horde or even bed-wetting Democrats.
Will Newsom ever run for president? My guess is yes, just not a year soon. In the short term, his association with Silicon Valley optimism and can-do dynamism has become more of a liability in an era when wealthy fools are turning major social media platforms into playthings. (Politico reported that Newsom had been in contact with the White House to confirm that he would support Biden for re-election — and would not mount a primary challenge.)
In the long run, being from California is an advantage, not only because of the state’s size, but also because, despite the GOP’s efforts to portray it as a vast homeless encampment, it is the future. Newsom has yoked his fortune to his state; he is California, making him both a juggernaut and a work in progress. He has taken fascinating steps, signing an order last August to end the sale of new gas-powered cars in California by 2035, for example, which fits with the state’s requirement that all new homes be equipped with solar power, as examples of a serious pressure. towards reducing emissions. There has never been a Democratic president from California, but Newsom may be the first.
You can’t write about Newsom without mentioning some glaring vulnerabilities. Naturally, the national press ran wild with references to Newsom’s peak-of-the-COVID-era gaffe of dining at an upscale Napa restaurant, with some claiming — from a considerable distance — that the French Laundry fiasco may be ending up with having Newsom recalled from office. For Californians, it was fun. The recall, widely seen as a clumsy right-wing attempt to smear a rising Democratic star, was voted down 62 percent to 38 percent. The level of tension was the same as John Belushi’s character cut in The animal house: 0.0.
“Much of the recall coverage in California was absurd,” the late great press critic Eric Boehlert, author of Lapdogs: How the Press Lay Down for Bush, told me last year. “The DC press swooped in all summer to push the story that Newsom ‘could’ lose. They love the ‘Dems in disarray’ narrative.”
When I spent some time with candidate Newsom, he was interviewing for a 2018 New York Times piece on the Californization of America, he lugged around a thick volume of Robert F. Kennedy’s letters, almost apologizing for how often he then dipped into the book for inspiration. Newsom’s political pole stars are the idealism and thoughtfulness of Kennedy at his best and the pragmatism and optimism of Bill Clinton. If he could pack a mix of those traits, it could increase his appeal outside of California. Yet, unfortunately, the comparison to the Kennedys and Clintons comes with some unwanted associations.
Back in Newsom’s days as a young operator in San Francisco—founder of PlumpJack Wine and friend of California power families, even though he was raised by a single working mother—Newsom was annoying people, what with the straight hair and the distracting looks and the often appear on the society pages with glamorous dates on the arm. He married a San Francisco lawyer/party girl, Kimberly Guilfoyle, long before her days as a Fox star, Don Jr.’s arm candy and the screaming Joker of Trump World, indicating lousy luck or an eye for political talent, depending on your point of view. Newsom has moved well beyond his wild youth and settled into fatherhood and marriage. But he still draws keen interest, as when he traveled to LA this month with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, to support her as she went through the harrowing ordeal of testifying against Harvey Weinstein.
Newsom would be wise to make himself more of a national voice on immigration and directly take on Fox News – the MAGA foundry spewing anti-immigrant hysteria. He could do worse than point out that hurricane-ravaged Southwest Florida is only going to be rebuilt by immigrants like those DeSantis used as props by sending them to Martha’s Vineyard.
The myth of an “exodus” from California, pushed by the right-wing noise machine, missed California’s embrace of immigration. It attracts immigrants from other countries who settle in other states. California’s tiny decline in population over the past two years — in January 2022, the drop from the previous January was a whopping 0.3 percent — was mostly about sputtering immigration. Numbers are numbers. For 2022, the decrease was 117,552, according to government figures. Foreign immigration brought in 43,300 that year, compared to an average rate of 140,000 before the pandemic. As Walter Schwarm, lead demographer for the California Department of Finance told me during the pandemic, “Because of COVID, international migration more or less stopped.”
Newsom has earned the right to press the Biden administration, which has not done enough to boost those numbers to pre-pandemic levels, especially for skilled high-tech workers. A 2018 Seattle Times analysis found that 71 percent of tech workers in and around San Jose were foreign-born, and California needs this influx to bring new talent and innovation.
If Newsom could make the case for a multi-ethnic immigration economy fused with an orderly border that Americans demand, he could become an essential part of a national dialogue about renewal.
The most crucial thing Newsom has shown is an ability to grow. He went through an over-the-top wonky phase as governor. Last year was San Francisco Chronicle political reporter Joe Garofoli wrote a hilarious and spot-on takedown of the gobbledygook Newsom talked about early in his tenure as governor, “Where ‘Saturday Night Live’ Got Gavin Newsom Wrong.” Like the former collegiate ballplayer that he is, Newsom made adjustments. He’s beaten back language like “the iterative process” and talks more often like a regular guy.
Bill Clinton, who was the master of growing as a politician, once told me, while talking about sports and politics, “All great contests are mind games.” Newsom may be one of the few Democrats of national standing who truly understands the need to fight MAGA depravity with unpredictability and joy in battle, not just a hard-line social doctrine of the threat to democracy. In high school, when Newsom was a star athlete at Redwood High in Marin County, he refused to come out of the lineup despite a painful stress fracture. His basketball coach told a local newspaper at the time, “In all my thirty-seven years of coaching, I’ve never had a boy play with such consistent pain.” Newsom said at the time: “There’s no way I’m giving up. I love the game too much.”