AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Over the past several weeks, voters in Texas and Florida have been subjected to the smiling visage of California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has appeared on their TV screens to sell his own record and attack that of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom Newsom termed “a bully,” and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whom Newsom criticized for his pro-life stance and support for the Second Amendment. It is unlikely that these ads will do much to dent the reelection prospects of either DeSantis or Abbott (both of whom seem to be cruising to victory in states filled with voters who fled Newsom’s California). Seen properly, the real targets of the attacks aren’t Republican governors, but rather members of Newsom’s own party: President Joe Biden and Newsom’s fellow Californian, Vice President Kamala Harris. Unable to legitimately enter a Democratic primary race when Joe Biden insists he is planning to run, Newsom has decided to try and crash the GOP 2024 sweepstakes to get Democrats’ imaginations going.
As strategies go, Newsom’s ploy is far from the worst being pursued by a Democratic politician in 2022. To be sure, it is cringeworthy and of little assistance either to Democratic candidates running in 2022 or actual American voters. But, to paraphrase the Big Lebowski, it has the singular advantage of being a “strategy.” That alone distinguishes it from the state of paralysis which has overtaken the rest of the Democratic Party. There, a consensus is growing that Joe Biden cannot and will not be a candidate for reelection in 2024. Whether it is a steady stream of leaks about White House dysfunction which have suddenly expanded to include speculation about the President’s health, or more explicit calls by leading liberal commentators, there is a growing chorus calling six more years of Joe Biden a non-starter.
These calls have been constrained by the obstacle presented in the form of Vice President Kamala Harris. Democrats do not believe she can win a general election, but are also unsure if they can deny her the nomination, and worry they could not win a general election if they did. The result has been a situation where fear of Harris prevents Democrats from acting against Biden, and fatalism prevents them from even beginning to do anything about Harris.
Newsom’s actions show an understanding of the frustrations of Democratic voters missed by most of his peers and rivals. The constant complaint among core Democratic voting groups is about the perceived inaction of Democrats in D.C. and the attitude of fatalism in which the Biden administration both reacts to calls to do something with scornful declarations that they can do nothing, and suggests that anyone saying otherwise is a fool. In just the past few months, Democrat voters have expressed frustration over a lack of action in response to the fall of Roe v. Wade, a lack of action on guns, a lack of action on student debt, and behind that, a lack of action on the economy.
Newsom is taking action – not to actually “fix” any of those issues, as he lacks real solutions. But he is taking action on one particular problem, and that is Democrats’ succession plan. Newsom is addressing the problem of Harris and Biden and he is not showing much fatalism. On the contrary, he is directly challenging the conventional wisdom that for any Democratic politician to openly begin preparing for 2024 is suicidal.
In the process, he is establishing a clear lane in any future Democratic contest. Newsom is on TV attacking DeSantis and Abbott, and will have been for almost three years when Biden was absent and Harris ineffective. Furthermore, if Biden does decline to run, a D.C. figure like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will be tarred with having sat back and done nothing to push Biden either into action or out of the race. Voters as a whole might crave effective action, but Newsom grasps that at least on the Democratic side, voters may be happy to settle for any action at all.
It is also worth noting the nature of Newsom’s challenge. Joe Biden and his team remain backward-looking, obsessively focused on Donald Trump and Pre-2021 issues, as evidenced by their obsession with both the January 6th hearings and rebuilding an “international liberal order,” without even trying to justify why Americans should sacrifice for such a concept. To the extent the administration engages with post 2020 issues such as inflation, housing, or the concerns over education, it is to treat them as “fake” issues stirred up by demagogues to be arbitrarily wished away by executive orders. Their reaction to the Dobbs decision is a case-in-point. The White House and Democrats in D.C. seem to see recent decisions by the Supreme Court not as the product of a long-held conservative legal tradition or extensive social movements, but rather as efforts by Trump judicial appointees to politically sabotage Democrats.
Newsom, by contrast, at least grasps that the culture wars are real. His reaction is to place himself on the wrong side perhaps, but Newsom understands that the issue at stake is not about which rest-stop bathrooms adults use, but fundamental questions of parental and child rights. Newsom understands that education is inherently about the power of society versus the power of parents, and not an astroturf distraction. There is no haggling over whether CRT exists. Newsom is determined to win the education wars, at least in California, and to offer Democrats and liberals a battle nationally.
It is unlikely to be a battle Newsom will win, but as I have written several times, many on the left have written off the prospect of electoral victory for any Democrat in the near future. What Newsom offers is combative engagement with the post-2020 political landscape, where Democrats believe that defeat should not be met with fatalistic acceptance but a determination to fight until they “rule or ruin.” Newsom speaks to that in a way Biden and Harris are not even trying to do.
Those who mock Newsom’s attacks on DeSantis and Abbott as ineffective miss the point. If Newsom is highlighting the strengths of his Republican rivals to their local electorates, he is also being ruthlessly effective in his real campaign to replace both Biden and Harris on the 2024 ticket.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.