Count me among the many political observers who think Governor Gavin Newsom deserves a lot of credit for the margin of his decisive victory over a recall effort in California last week. He took the risk of this disaster quite seriously and was very disciplined in how he fought it both on the campaign trail and in how he governed in Sacramento. Some of the strategic decisions he made that I second-guessed were probably smart.
But let’s not get carried away, as Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak clearly did:
Newsom should be a very hot commodity right now, especially after beating the recall by such a huge margin. He might conceivably top the list of prospective Democratic presidential candidates touted by political gossips and others who set the early betting line.
But one thing stands in his way: Vice President Kamala Harris.
While fellow Californian Harris does indeed stand in the way of President Newsom, it’s not like that’s the only thing. To begin with, Newsom’s recall victory wasn’t that impressive a personal triumph. His successful strategy involved making partisan polarization the issue in the recall. Almost by definition, that meant the identity of the specific Democrat occupying the office Republicans were trying to swipe and bend to their nefarious anti-vaxx MAGA ends was nearly irrelevant. Not surprisingly, the percentage of those voting “no” was almost identical to the percentage won in California by Joe Biden in 2020. It’s not like Democrats (who simply had to check one box on a ballot conveniently mailed to them, seal it, and pop it in a postage-paid reply envelope) were lining up at the polls to vindicate the reputation of Gavin Newsom.
And it’s impossible to forget that the whole $300 million boondoggle of a recall election would almost certainly never have occurred if Newsom hadn’t lit a huge fire under his detractors with a spectacular gaffe my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti aptly described:
With his constituents in the grips of COVID cabin fever, he was caught maskless with political allies at the French Laundry in Napa — a gift to his opponents that a Hollywood writers’ room might reject as too on-the-nose.
Barabak goes on to recite the history of California as a state whose vast size and influence has made it a launchpad for the presidential destinies of so many of its governors, from Ronald Reagan to … well, that’s it. Yes, others — from Hiram Johnson to Earl Warren to Jerry Brown to Pete Wilson — have run for president, yet all but Reagan failed dismally. The idea made more sense when the Golden State was a presidential battleground offering a rich harvest of electoral votes to both major parties. Now it’s hard to imagine a Democratic presidential candidate who could even flirt with losing California. Democrats don’t need Newsom (or Harris or anyone else) to win there. Harris, of course, now has a national political base as Biden’s veep that far, far exceeds anything Newsom has, even in the glare of positive publicity about the recall.
But a sunny assessment of Newsom’s presidential prospects is not the most risible thing in the Times column. It’s this totally authentic quote from Newsom himself:
Did the smashing result, Major Garrett of CBS News wished to know, “accelerate or diminish” Newsom’s ambitions to be president?
“Literally 100% never been on my radar,” said the conquering Democrat, delivering the inevitable response.
In a profession where it’s assumed everyone wants to be president, Newsom has stood out for years as a Man on the Move with an eye on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and not just because of his cover-model looks and his impeccable connections. Here’s what Tad Friend reported in a profile of Newsom published in 2018:
As a young man, Newsom made VHS tapes of three subjects and studied them obsessively: the smooth lefty swing of the Giants’ first baseman Will Clark; episodes of “Remington Steele”; and every speech by Bill Clinton. When Newsom was mayor, his staff always knew when he’d been studying Clinton, because he’d speak with an Arkansas twang. He still employs Clinton mannerisms on the stump: the bit lip of empathy, the genial head toggle as he adjudicates, the drill-sergeant jaw pop before he wades in. Yet one official who knows both men suggested that their affects differ: “Bill Clinton peers deeply into your soul. Gavin peers deeply into the mirror at himself.”
Look, I don’t want to pick on Newsom. Hundreds of thousands of Americans decide during childhood that they will someday be president; I went to law school with about 300 of them. The California governor is unquestionably smart and hardworking, and he is doing an extremely difficult job well enough to pass any résumé test for higher office. Compared to the likes of, say, Ron DeSantis, Newsom would qualify for a spot on Mount Rushmore. But in a country where people still really, really distrust politicians and resent elites, Gavin Newsom will always be the dude who saw nothing wrong with breaking his own pandemic rules in order to party at one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world with a lobbyist. Perhaps Newsom will henceforth accomplish enough as governor of California to make a national political audience forget about the breathtaking arrogance he seemed to display then, and if he does, I’ll be the drum major of his presidential parade. But he would be very wise right now to forget about higher office.