June 12, 2024


The Legal System

Gavin Newsom’s Next Act | Washington Monthly

The midterm elections had some clear winners, starting with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose in-your-face politics and wide victory margin continued to impress Republican donors. With less attention from the media herd, California Governor Gavin Newsom coasted to an electoral win equally as decisive as DeSantis (around 59 percent for both)—and gave his brand of Democratic politics a major jolt of validation.

Newsom took on DeSantis with a variety of public taunts this year on the bet that the politics of trolling was a growth stock. DeSantis’s ugly use of migrants, untoward battles with Disney, and demagoguing of the trans community triggered a response from the California governor, who placed ads in Florida media markets urging residents who believe in freedom to move to his state. The investment paid off, leaving Newsom as one of the few Democrats positioned to spar with the pugilistic Florida governor and get anywhere.

Newsom, I expect, is just getting started, though not in the way many national prognosticators have been projecting. He will continue to have fun taking shots at the strutting self-caricature in Florida for the simple reason that, so far, it’s been working.

Newsom’s tactics, from challenging DeSantis to a debate to running ads in Florida, might have been written off in Beltway journalism circles as “obvious” preparation for a 2024 Newsom presidential run should Joe Biden decline to seek a second term.

But that’s highly unlikely. One former Democratic governor I talked with about Newsom recently said Newsom knows it’s highly unlikely an opportunity would open up next year to run for president. First, he knows that Biden is planning on running again, barring unforeseen developments. If Biden does not run, Newsom’s fellow Californian, Vice President Kamala Harris, would deserve the respect of putting together her own run—and would, I’m told, have the endorsements not only of Representative Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina kingmaker whose approval proved so pivotal to Biden in 2020, but possibly of Barack Obama as well. Newsom can’t 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 would call it here in Northern California, since he understands that nothing else cuts through autopilot journalism and the amygdala overload of social media.

Hence, the former governor told me, if you’re Newsom, “why not have your fun?”

Few were surprised here in California when Newsom firmly pledged to serve his four-year term.

This leads us back to Newsom’s attempts at what everyone in Silicon Valley used to call “disruption.” As the Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote earlier this fall, Newsom stood up for the fundamental democratic value of fighting for what you believe instead of letting the exasperating crazy energy of the MAGA right run rampant 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’ll never forget attending a hacker convention in the Netherlands for Wired.com in August 2001 and listening to the testimonial of the Chaos Computer Club cofounder Wau Holland, who might be called one of the founders of the hacking movement.

A hacker, Holland believed, always sought to impact public opinion through timely actions that played off of ill-founded perceptions. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1984, Holland and another hacker “found a security hole in Germany’s archaic Btx network, which they pointed out to authorities—and were ignored. To make their point, the pair hacked into the system using the password of the Hamburg savings bank—and ran up the equivalent of roughly $50,000 in credit to the CCC account. Then they went to the media with the story, which caused a major stir in West Germany.”

To Trump and his fellow MAGA-style politicians, politics is poll-driven entertainment for cash, and it takes a certain amount of flair—and fearlessness—to combat that. The Newsom barbs at DeSantis—like President Biden’s unfairly dismissed speeches on the importance of fighting for democracy—seem far more in line with where the electorate turned out to be than the media horde or even bedwetting Democrats.

Will Newsom ever run for president? My guess is yes, just not any year soon. In the short run, his connection with Silicon Valley optimism and can-do dynamism has become more of a liability in an era when wealthy buffoons turn major social media platforms into playthings. (Politico reported that Newsom had been in touch with the White House to confirm that he would firmly support Biden for reelection—and would not mount a primary challenge.)

Over the long run, being from California is an asset, not just because of the state’s size, but also because, despite GOP efforts to portray it as one big 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’s taken fascinating steps, signing an executive order last August to halt sales of new gas-powered cars in California by 2035, for example, which fits with the state’s requirement that all new homes come equipped with solar power, as examples of a serious push toward reducing emissions. There’s never been a Democratic president from California, but Newsom could be the first.

You can’t write about Newsom without mentioning some glaring vulnerabilities. The national press naturally wore itself out with references to Newsom’s peak-of-the-COVID-era gaffe of having dinner at an exclusive Napa restaurant, with some claiming—from a considerable distance—that the French Laundry fiasco might end up getting Newsom recalled from office. To Californians, that was funny. The recall effort, widely seen as a clumsy right-wing attempt to smear a rising Democratic star, was voted down by 62 to 38 percent. The degree of suspense was the same as John Belushi’s grade-point average in Animal House: 0.0.

“A lot of the California recall coverage was absurd,” the late, great press critic Eric Boehlert, author of Lapdogs: How the Press Lay Down for Bush, told me last year. “The D.C. press swooped in all summer to push the story line that Newsom ‘could’ lose. They love the ‘Dems in disarray’ narrative.”

When I spent some time with candidate Newsom, interviewing him for a 2018 New York Times piece on the Californization of America, he was lugging around a thick volume of Robert F. Kennedy’s letters, almost apologizing for how often he was then dipping into the book for inspiration. Newsom’s political polestars are the idealism and thoughtfulness the Kennedys at their best represent to him and the pragmatism and optimism of Bill Clinton. If he could package a mix of those qualities, it could boost his appeal outside of California. Still, alas, the comparison with the Kennedys and Clinton comes with some unwanted associations.

Back to Newsom’s days as a young operator in San Francisco—founder of PlumpJack Wine and friend of California power families, though raised by a single working mother—Newsom was annoying people, what with his slicked-back hair and distracting good looks and showing up often in the society pages with glamorous dates on his arm. He married one San Francisco attorney/party girl, Kimberly Guilfoyle, long before her days as a Fox star, Don Jr.’s arm candy, and the shrieking Joker of Trump World, which indicates lousy luck or an eye for political talent, depending on your viewpoint. Newsom’s moved well beyond his wild youth and settled into fatherhood and marriage. But he still inspires prurient interest, as when he traveled to LA this month with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, to support her as she went through the horrific ordeal of testifying against Harvey Weinstein.

Newsom would be wise to make himself more of a national voice on immigration and directly take on the Fox News–MAGA foundry spewing anti-immigrant hysteria. He could do worse than to point out that hurricane-battered Southwest Florida is only going to be rebuilt by immigrants like the ones DeSantis was using 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 resettle in other states. California’s tiny drops in population in the past two years—in January 2022, the decrease over the previous January was all of .3 percent—was mostly about sputtering immigration. Numbers are numbers. For 2022, the decline was 117,552, according to state figures. Foreign immigration brought in 43,300 that year, compared to an average rate of 140,000 before the pandemic. As Walter Schwarm, the lead demographer for the California Department of Finance told me during the pandemic: “Due to COVID, international migration was more or less halted.”

Newsom has earned the right to pressure the Biden administration, which has not done enough to boost those numbers to pre-pandemic levels, especially regarding 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 that influx to bring fresh talent and innovation.

If Newsom could make a case for a multiethnic immigration economy fused with an orderly border that Americans demand, he could become an essential part of a national dialogue on renewal.

The most crucial thing Newsom has shown is a capacity for growth. He went through an over-the-top wonky phase as governor. Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle political reporter Joe Garofoli wrote a hilarious and spot-on takedown of the gobbledygook Newsom speaking nonstop early in his time as governor, “Where ‘Saturday Night Live’ got Gavin Newsom wrong.” Like the former collegiate ballplayer he is, Newsom made adjustments. He’s dialed back language like “the iterative process” and more often talks like a regular guy.

Bill Clinton, who was the master of growing as a politician, once told me, talking about sports and politics, “All great contests are mind games.” Newsom may be one of the few Democrats of national standing who truly grasps the need to fight MAGA depravity with unpredictability and joy in combat, not just a dour civics lesson in the threat to democracy. In high school, when Newsom was a star two-sport 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 paper at the time, “In all my thirty-seven years of coaching, I have never had a boy who has played with such consistent pain.” Said Newsom at the time: “There’s no way I’m giving it up. I love the game too much.”