Gavin Newsom appears to be making a presidential bid.
Aside from placing full-page ads in Texas newspapers and funding billboards in Indiana — efforts designed to raise his national profile — the California governor is exercising some uncharacteristic moderation. He vetoed drug-injection sites for addicts, for instance, a turnabout from his election pledge in California. What’s changed is not his desire to shoot up junkies but rather his fear that Michiganders or Arizonans may not take well to such a program.
Even as he downplays some of his most extreme policy positions, Newsom is projecting himself as a strong leader who can build a progressive utopia and contrasting that with the weakness of Biden.
“Where are we?” Newsom asked Democrats in Texas last month. “Where are we organizing, bottom-up, a compelling alternative narrative? Where are we going on the offense every single day?” Biden, the leader of the Democratic Party, was the unspoken object of Newsom’s ire.
With Biden always getting lost at podiums, it’s easy for Newsom, age 54 and under the impression that his vibrancy makes him charming, to pose as the antithesis to the mentally declining 79-year-old.
Newsom faces three enormous problems: He has XY chromosomes, is of European ancestry, and is attracted to women.
Newsom can rightly claim to be on “the offense” in progressives’ book with the array of quasi-communist policies he’s foisting on California, including forcing fast food restaurants to pay their workers a prescribed wage, requiring car companies to cease selling gasoline-powered vehicles, and handing out cash to solve inflation.
He is also taking on Florida Gov. DeSantis, who is seen as one of the top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination — an effort that sets Newsom up as DeSantis’ natural opponent in a general election. Last month, Newsom challenged DeSantis to a debate, saying, “Clearly you’re struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people’s lives. Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let’s take this up & debate.”
While Biden has said in recent days that he will run for reelection, it’s no secret that, due to his deep unpopularity, ineptitude, and incoherence, Democrats have been looking for an exit strategy. Some of that talk has diminished following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and a bump in favorability ratings, but Democrats are still quaking at the thought of an octogenarian president spending most of his days disguising his dementia.
But while Newsom is doing everything necessary to prepare a challenge to the president, he faces three enormous problems: He has XY chromosomes, is of European ancestry, and is attracted to women.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Democrats went through months of inter-party wrangling over whether it would be OK to nominate a person from the disfavored sex, race, and sexual orientation.
A New York Times article in April 2019 asserted that older white men are “out of step with ascendant forces in the party today” and questioned whether a white man would be “the best face for an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.”
After Kamala Harris dropped out of the 2020 presidential race following a disastrous campaign, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California blamed her exit on systemic racism in the Democratic Party.
“Systemic racism permeates everything in this country. I think Democrats are doing some soul-searching right now,” Lee said. “I don’t know if white Democrats are really stepping up and looking at how the system is biased and prevents others from coming through.”
The sentiment was widespread. A significant proportion of Democrats remained upset about the race and gender of the leading candidates. In a 2020 Pew survey prior to Biden’s nomination, 41 percent of registered Democratic voters said they were bothered that their likely nominee would be a white older man.
Following the election, Slate writer Christina Cauterucci said, “There is still a bitter aftertaste to the knowledge that, several months after the most diverse presidential primary the U.S. has ever seen, the final result is that another white man will be president.”
The dislike for white male candidates is partially ideological, as Lee demonstrated, because it is motivated by a belief that a deeply racist system can only progress when women of color are elevated to the highest positions. If they are not, racial injustice continues.
After an election cycle in which Democrats settled for a white man, could Democrats really prolong injustice by selecting Gavin Newsom, another white man?
Joe Mathews of Zócalo Public Square grappled with this possibility on Tuesday. “Newsom,” he said, “is demographically wrong for a Democratic party that desperately needs to nominate more women and people of color. But Newsom is perfectly cast to call out white male political bullies and call in his fellow Democrats.”
Newsom is considered particularly problematic because he is a privileged white man. He has a close relationship with businessman Gordon Getty, who has a net worth of over $2 billion. Getty invested in 10 of Newsom’s businesses, lifting him to economic success. An enduring image of Newsom is of him dining indoors without wearing a mask at the French Laundry, a luxury restaurant in Yountville, California, to celebrate a lobbyist’s birthday, soon after he had told Californians to stay home to avoid spreading COVID.
And Newsom himself has long said that justice demands elevating women of color.
Last year, he told MSNBC’s Joy Reid that if Sen. Dianne Feinstein retired, he would select a black woman to replace her. He also signed a law that mandated corporations headquartered in California include racial or sexual minorities on their boards. In signing the bill, he argued that including racial minorities was necessary for racial justice. “When we talk about racial justice, we talk about empowerment, we talk about power,” Newsom said, “and we need to talk about seats at the table.” The law was ruled unconstitutional.
If Newsom ran for president, he may been seen as betraying his own principle that the time is now for women of color. He would also have to say that he, a white man, would be a better leader than likely 2024 presidential candidate Vice President Kamala Harris, a woman with Jamaican and Indian ancestry. It would be an uncomfortable dichotomy to portray himself as a fighter for racial justice while, according to the Democratic understanding, subjugating women of color by excluding them from office.
The Democratic Party would also have to violate its insistence that Biden was a one-off white man in a modern era of diverse presidents, a sacrifice only justified by the necessity of defeating Trump.
The problem the party faces is that Harris has been a disaster in her role as vice president and put up a terrible showing during the primary season. According to FiveThirtyEight, her approval rating stands at a dismal 39 percent. Harris can’t point to a particular accomplishment and has been criticized for her speeches, which famously go in circles without saying anything.
If no person of color can appear vigorous compared to Biden’s frailty, the Democrats may have to again turn their sights to their most dreaded demographic: white men.
Newsom, a feminist progressive, is hoping that no woman of color will be up to the task.
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