AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Camman
Almost no one had heard of Laphonza Butler a week ago, but Gavin Newsom wants everyone to know how proud he is of his “incredible” pick to replace the late Diane Feinstein in the Senate. “You in some ways can’t even make all of this up, if I had to literally design from the mind of imagination, put pen to paper, someone I would like,” is how Newsom described Butler to Politico.
Gone was any concern about stepping into a divisive primary over the Senate seat. Despite promises to appoint a caretaker—in fact Newsom had justified not choosing any of the leading candidates in the election on the basis that he did not want to influence the primary—the governor is now all but urging Butler to run in words that sound like an endorsement.
Newsom’s Senate appointment is the latest flex in what is, if not a challenge to Biden, an increasingly brazen indifference to the feelings of Democrat power brokers and institutions. In appointing Butler, Newsom ignored the urging of the Congressional Black Caucus to appoint Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Butler was also formerly a senior advisor to Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign, but Newsom seems to have not consulted the current vice president and former California senator on the pick.
Newsom’s decision also followed a series of interviews where the governor expressed contrition—perhaps feigned—that he and many others got their COVID-19 responses wrong. Last week, he vetoed a bill which would have allowed California courts in custody disputes to remove children from parents who refuse to affirm their gender identity. He followed that decision up with another veto of a bill which would allow workers to collect unemployment payments while on strike.
These gestures are reminiscent of the sort Bill Clinton might have embraced thirty years ago, but Sister Souljah moments have been out of fashion for almost a decade, and virtually unheard of among white Democrats when it comes to transgender issues.
Newsom, for what it is worth, denies he is running a campaign of any sort, instead pitching himself as Biden’s top surrogate. “The train has left the station,” Mr. Newsom has said of concerns about backing Biden. “We’re all in. Stop talking. He’s not going anywhere. It’s time for all of us to get on the train and buck up.”
By his own account, Newsom’s outspokenness is an act of loyalty. He is planning to debate Ron DeSantis next month as an alleged service to Joe Biden and his good friend Kamala Harris, with whom he speaks regularly.
And should anyone question his motives, or suggest there are any other ambitions at play? Well, they are the disloyal ones, Newsom says. They are the ones who need to face the reality that Joe Biden is running and Gavin Newsom is behind him 100 percent.
Critics and much of the political media are quick to dismiss these claims, but Newsom comes from an older tradition of political smarminess, one whose practitioners pride themselves on the self-imposed limitation of technically telling the truth. It is best, then, to take Gavin Newsom at his word. His exact words.
Joe Biden is currently running for president. Gavin Newsom is 100 percent behind Joe Biden as long as he is running, and has absolutely no intention of challenging him.
Gavin Newsom, however, does not necessarily believe that Joe Biden will definitely be the nominee come next year. Gavin Newsom’s agenda is to be able to move into that vacuum should it arise. His opponents, then, would not be Biden, but rivals for Biden’s crown.
In this light, absolute and over-the-top loyalty to Joe Biden makes perfect sense. It allows Newsom to simultaneously portray self-promotion as selfless service, and slam criticism of Gavin Newsom as disloyalty to Joe Biden, or at very least a decision to engage in conspiratorial intrigue rather than focus on the mission of reelecting Biden.
Newsom’s political and policy moves make more sense when one understands the unique nature of the California governor’s apparent strategy.
His approach is more akin to a campaign waged to succeed an aging paterfamilias in the Soviet Politburo or a third-world autocracy. In such cases, absent a coup, which is off-the-table for any candidate unassociated with the military or security agencies, the incumbent is only leaving office in a coffin. The path to power lies not in challenging the man who has it, but by casting aspersions on the loyalty of rivals to the succession, while also undermining the power bases of rival candidates.
Newsom’s solicitude towards Biden’s reelection campaign represents the first element of this strategy. His “triangulation” represents the second.
Conventional wisdom states that the path to victory in a party primary is to win over key interest groups and use their promotion to gain the profile needed to win. Newsom understands the changed nature of the game he is playing. He already has an alternative road to national prominence. There is little the promotion of LGBT+ groups or far-left activists can do to raise his national profile. By contrast, their continued strength provides a potential means by which his rivals can match his prominence. By warring with them, he weakens any potential platform they provide his foes, and makes any decision to oppose him appear as pique at his principled refusal to pander.
A similar rationale justifies Newsom’s choice of Butler. The normal political calculation would have been for Newsom to choose between candidates on the basis of the usefulness of their political coalitions. By picking an outsider, Newsom created his own. He has now appointed both of California’s Senators. Furthermore, Newsom has sent a message to every ambitious figure outside of an existing Democrat faction or power structure: he will reward fealty.
Newsom is far from the only Democrat to give thought to the possibility Joe Biden might be unable to run in 2024. But he has clearly thought more deeply about what that would involve and what would be required to replace Biden on the ticket.
Under this scenario, the Democrat nomination will not be determined by a primary. Joe Biden will run, win 85 percent of the delegates, and then if he drops out before the convention, those delegates will determine the nomination.
Newsom grasps that this sort of insider contest is the only sort where a candidate with D.C. Beltway but no wider electoral appeal such as Pete Buttigieg can aspire to viability. He also knows there will be enormous pressure for a consensus pick, and that the D.C. network, divided between Harris and Buttigieg, and the Democratic Governors, who seem to distrust Newsom and are likely to back Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, will oppose his candidacy. They would likely agree on a unity candidate, who we must speculate will not be Newsom.
Newsom’s only hope to resist pressure to defer to a unity candidate is to present himself as such an obvious successor that any process which excludes him from consideration looks like a stitch up. He is running a campaign therefore less to directly secure the nomination and more to convince everyone in the country that he is Biden’s obvious successor, and that passing him over would be undemocratic.
It is a complicated game Gavin Newsom appears to be playing. The California governor seems to understand the rules better than his rivals, who are trapped in the mindset of a primary campaign. Newsom knows this. Anyone who witnesses the smirk on his face during recent interviews knows it as well.
In the meantime, we should take Gavin Newsom at his word. He will not run against Joe Biden. He will fully support Joe Biden. Joe Biden will be the nominee. Until he isn’t.
Then, much as Newsom’s Senate appointee was a placeholder until she wasn’t, Gavin Newsom will find what he can offer his party too incredible to resist.
Andrew Camman is the pseudonym of a regular writer on current affairs who has taught history at the University level for eight years. He has worked on Capitol Hill and is familiar with the historical development of the American and British political systems.