Gavin Newsom, the Ron DeSantis of the Left

California has many problems, but its governor keeps tangling with right-wingers out of state.

Black-and-white close-up photo of Gavin Newson smiling and looking up
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, has made a striking choice of which public fights to pick. Since 2019, he has been in charge of America’s most populous state—one that confronts severe water, energy, and housing shortages; growing homeless encampments in multiple cities; rising homicide counts; failing schools; perpetually gridlocked traffic; and infamously bad public transportation. In a poll earlier this year from UC Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times, a majority of voters said that California is headed in the wrong direction.

Nevertheless, he has been devoting much of his attention to publicly heaping scorn on conservatives around the country. As a Californian, I struggle to imagine a bigger waste of time than the way Newsom has been spending his: “I just joined Trump’s Truth Social,” Newsom announced in June. “Going to be on there calling out Republican lies.” He’s the governor of a disaster-prone state with 39 million residents, and he’s bragging about trolling MAGA sycophants on an off-brand Twitter? This summer, he has bought ads attacking Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas (where getting attacked by Californians helps you).

Newsom’s behavior is the product of perverse incentives. Excelling in leadership at the state level means waging and winning risky, politically inconvenient fights that do little to raise a governor’s national profile. A far easier way to attract attention and ingratiate yourself to Democratic power brokers is by picking culture-war fights with enemies of convenience—that is to say, people whom most of your fellow partisans loathe—no matter how tenuously connected those fights might be to politics or policy in the place you’re supposed to govern. Many Democrats rightly scoff at Trump-era conservatives who care more about owning the libs than serving their constituents. But Newsom likewise seems to think that, in today’s political environment, the best way to improve his national prospects is to mock and irritate the other side. And for better or worse, he may be correct.

Despite California’s evident dysfunction, Newsom is expected to breeze to reelection this November. He has enjoyed all the advantages that a Democratic governor hoping to turn around or transform the Golden State could reasonably want. His party controls every statewide office, a supermajority of the legislature, and most cities. The state has a budget surplus. And the initiative process allows Newsom to appeal directly to the people if state lawmakers reject any changes that he might propose. Perhaps no elected Democrat in any state is less likely to see their agenda thwarted by Republicans.

Spared a tough reelection fight by a California GOP too incompetent to nominate viable challengers, Newsom could have focused his reelection campaign on promoting any ambitious agenda of his choosing. Instead, Newsom shifted his attention to Texas and Florida, as if California has everything figured out and the nation need only follow its approach. Of course, no one looking at the state from the outside—and noting its high taxes, high cost of living, and poor infrastructure and state services—sees a model worth emulating.

Yet many in the press view Newsom’s approach as politically prudent. His “attention-grabbing tactics” have “launched the leader of the most-populous state into the conversation about potential Democratic presidential nominees should Joe Biden not run again,” Bloomberg reports. Politico’s “California Playbook” argues that “whether Newsom is cracking the presidential door or promoting California progressivism is almost beside the point. The fundamentals are the same. Newsom has long sought to extol California’s agenda—and his—by contrasting it with that of populous red states … It elevates Newsom’s profile and helps him influence the national conversation.”

Admittedly, Newsom’s behavior of late has arguably improved his chances of at least snagging the type of Cabinet appointment that new presidents give to partisan allies without any domain expertise, and in a Democratic presidential-primary contest, there’s always at least a lane for someone perceived as a happy warrior. Back in the aughts, when Rush Limbaugh’s bombastic bloviating dominated talk radio, a certain sort of Democrat thought, We on the left need one of him. Today, a similar sort of Democrat has the same thought when watching DeSantis, who has used his governorship to trigger as many liberal tears as possible.

But the people who are most driven by negative partisanship are terrible judges of who will win general elections. Most Americans don’t want a hard-line left-winger or right-winger to be president, and many find the sadistic delight partisans take in political combat to be weird and off-putting. That’s why Joe Biden, not Donald Trump, is now president.

Even if Newsom’s recent antics do persuade Democrats to nominate him for the White House in 2024—he insists he doesn’t want to run while acting as if he does—making him the party’s standard-bearer would be risky in a general election for two reasons. First, the “look at what the right wing is doing” diversions won’t be enough against a talented opponent who redirects attention to his record in California and forces him to answer for the state’s most jaw-droppingly dysfunctional features. Although Newsom can point to some small improvements here and there, none are on the scale of the state’s many challenges—or on the scale one might expect given his party’s supermajority control of the legislature. Second, Newsom’s approach to exploiting negative polarization is especially alienating, just as Hillary Clinton’s was in 2016, in that it essentially labels large swaths of America as deplorables.

For example, earlier this month, Newsom—perhaps inspired by DeSantis’s efforts to punish Disney for speaking up in the culture wars—wrote an open letter insinuating that movie studios should avoid states that fail to protect abortion and LGBTQ rights. “Over the last several years, the legislatures of states like Georgia and Oklahoma have waged a cruel assault on essential rights,” Newsom declared in the letter, which he posted on Twitter and published as an ad in the movie-industry publication Variety. “Today more than ever, you have a responsibility to take stock of your values––and those of your employees––when doing business in those states … So to those in power to make decisions about where to film, where to hire, where to open new offices, we in California say: Walk the walk.”

In this instance, Newsom’s stance is at least conceivably beneficial to his constituents. I personally would prefer that Hollywood spend its dollars in California, where I live, than in Georgia. But recall that Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020. A Democratic presidential nominee on record arguing that corporations cannot ethically do business or hire people there will have a lot more trouble winning that state. In recent presidential elections, Democrats have been more and more competitive in Texas—which Newsom recently described on Twitter, alongside a dozen or so other states that still have sodomy laws on their books, as “hateful.”

In the 2004 speech that catapulted Barack Obama to national prominence, the future president, who won Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio at least once, said this about the states he was gearing up to contest:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

That’s how Democrats succeed—by trying to win over people in all states, not by suggesting that some states are properly shunned and boycotted by their moral betters in Hollywood. Bill Clinton, Obama, and Biden all understood that. So do Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and many others. Newsom’s current approach is perfect if MSNBC needs a voice to please its progressive base, but elevating him in politics would be fraught for Democrats. As for the ongoing partisan-warrior schtick, I have nothing in general against, say, Twitter spats with the governor of Alabama. I reject her values too. But as a Californian dismayed by my beloved state’s problems, it’s not how I want my governor, of all people, to spend his time.