Gavin Newsom wants to be president. Obviously. And who could blame him?
After all, he’s the governor of the largest state in the country, a state with one of the most powerful economies in the world.
If a so-old-everyone-gets-nervous-when-he-speaks Joe Biden can be president, why can’t he?
Newsom has a long record of leading on issues that Democrats care about.
As mayor of San Francisco, in 2004, he ordered the city clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For reference, back in 2004, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden still opposed gay marriage and it would even be several years until progressive hero Barack Obama “evolved” on it.
As lieutenant governor, rather than sit around as lieutenant governors tend to do, Newsom used his time to champion marijuana legalization and gun-control measures. In 2016, California voters approved both marijuana legalization and a measure enacting various gun-control measures.
As governor, he made a point of challenging President Donald Trump, positioning California as a leader of the “resistance” to Trumpism.
He’s been a leader on criminal justice reform. From supporting Proposition 47 in 2014 to doing what he can to deconstruct the state’s death penalty system.
He’s also demonstrated flashes of pragmatism, with, for example, his openness to keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear open after all and supporting desalination.
This is literally all more than Kamala Harris can say, for example. And, unlike Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, he has none of the blood on his hands for voting for the war in Iraq like they did.
A Newsom presidential campaign would be something new. He wouldn’t be an already-ran like Harris, or Elizabeth Warren or Cory “Spartacus” Booker or Amy “Immensely Boring” Klobuchar. He also wouldn’t be a way-too-old Bernie Sanders or Michael Bloomberg.
In sum: he has a prominent position, he has national recognition, he has a long track record of leading on things Democrats care about, he’s free of the baggage of old establishment types like Biden and Clinton, and he hasn’t suffered the indignity of a failed presidential run.
Here’s the problem though: as governor of California, he owns the problems of California. And they are many.
The harsh realities of California
Gavin Newsom isn’t responsible for all of the problems facing California.
Homelessness was a serious problem before he became governor. California has had a high rate of poverty for a long time. And California’s schools have yielded poor outcomes both relative to the state’s own standards and compared to the rest of the country for years.
But those are all persistent problems and Newsom hasn’t yet proven capable of turning the tide.
There were an estimated 115,738 homeless people in California in 2015. As of January 2020, there were 161,548 people experiencing homelessness.
As long as the situation doesn’t significantly improve and as long as vast homeless encampments line the streets of major cities, one can just imagine Newsom’s national political rivals showing ads showcasing Newsom’s failure. Californians have grown numb to homelessness, but most of the country will be left echoing Newsom’s own words when he wondered earlier this year, “I’m asking myself, what the hell is going on? We look like a third-world country.”
Then there’s the state’s persistent problem with poverty.
It’s not exactly inspiring for California to have one of the most powerful economies on earth and yet consistently rank as the state with the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. Sure, there’s Silicon Valley. Sure, there are plenty of people making plenty of money.
But there are also a lot of people, and disproportionately people who aren’t White, who are living in poverty in California. These are people stuck seeing most of their money evaporate on housing costs alone.
According to CalMatters in March, Newsom initially planned to issue an “explicit call out on inequality” in his State of the State address this year but “largely avoided the topics of poverty and inequality” after cutting down the speech. That makes sense, because he has nothing to brag about.
His main ideas have revolved around cutting government checks. Standard stuff. Nothing inspiring. Nothing innovative. More of the same.
And then there’s education.
Earlier this year, Capitol Weekly reported that California has the lowest literacy rate of any state and that “Nearly 1 in 4 people over the age of 15 lack the skills to decipher the words in this sentence.”
For years, California’s K-12 students have failed to meet the state’s own standards in English and mathematics. And for years, California has ranked near the bottom of the country on national standardized tests.
What’s Newsom doing about it? Not much. He’s really into universal pre-K, but he’s really not into holding teachers or school administrators accountable.
And once again, who is hurt the most by all of this? Poor kids, Black kids and Latino kids, who all do even worse on average than the already terrible overall stats.
In 2021, while 48.9% met the state’s standards in English, just 33% of Black students did and just 37.5% of Latino students did. Likewise, just 36.3% of low-income students met English standards. Yes, these numbers were during COVID, but the numbers weren’t much better two years before, when the stats were between 2 and 4 percentage points higher.
So, sure, Newsom virtue-signaled how much he pretends to care about Black and Latino kids with his support of the failed affirmative action measure. But until the educational outcomes of Black and Latino kids improve, expect that to be an easy knock on a Newsom presidential bid.
Progressives have reason to be skeptical
On top of all of that, I think there are particular weaknesses Newsom has with progressives.
One, Newsom campaigned on single-payer in 2018 (“I’m tired of politicians saying they support single-payer but that it’s too soon, too expensive or someone else’s problem”) and what did he do as governor? He gave up on it. If he can’t lead on single-payer in California of all states, how can he be counted on to make it happen in Washington, D.C.?
Two, Newsom loves the prison guards union and the prison guards union loves him. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association played a pivotal role in establishing California’s mass incarceration system, resisting reforms for years. Guess who they backed in 2018? Newsom. Guess who Newsom, without justification, decided to shower with money? That’s right, the CCPOA. And guess which union spent heavily to help Newsom defeat the recall last year? The CCPOA. In Newsom, the deplorable prison guards union has a friend. That goes over just fine with your typical establishment Democrat, but I’m not sure progressives will be pleased with that.
Three, Newsom has a knack for getting himself into sketchy situations. Violating his own COVID rules to dine with lobbyists at the French Laundry. Denying there was any conflict whatsoever in his wife’s nonprofit receiving “at least $800,000 in political donations from corporations that lobby state government in recent years,” as reported by the Associated Press. Doling out no-bid contracts to campaign donors.
Newsom’s sort of your standard-issue political machine politician who plays the game, even if it means backtracking on major promises or rubbing elbows with wealthy interests.
Still, he could do it (he’d probably bomb, though, maybe, I don’t know)
At the end of the day, national politics are a toxic vortex of manic-depressive lunacy. So even with all of the above, there are sure to be people who would easily choose Newsom over, say, Donald Trump, and they’d have plenty of sensible reasons to do so.
But first, an opening needs to present itself.
Would Newsom run against a super-old, super-stubborn Biden? That would be bolder than anything Newsom has done in his political career.If Biden decided to call it a day, would Newsom challenge Kamala Harris? As long as her poll numbers continue to set records for how low they are, why not?
My guess is that he’ll fold under the national spotlight. Most people won’t buy what he’s selling. Going back to his San Francisco days, he’s never handled media scrutiny particularly well.
And unlike California, the rest of America is, on net, actually pretty purple. It’s one thing to win in San Francisco, or win a statewide office in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican not named Arnold Schwarzenegger to statewide office since the ‘90s.
It’s another to be a national candidate, as the successful-in-California-but-obviously-horrible-to-everyone-else-in-America Kamala Harris learned.
Sal Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com