SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The most crippling political public relations disasters often involve minor issues that reinforce an existing, negative narrative about an existing candidate. When Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was running against Vice President George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election, the public perceived Dukakis as soft on foreign policy.
He’s just another privileged guy who does what he pleases, yet is quick to stand on his soapbox to denounce others.
It wasn’t actually a big deal that Dukakis rode around in an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank at a campaign stop at a General Dynamics plant in Michigan, given that politicians and their aides set up photo-ops all the time. But the small-statured Dukakis looked so ridiculous wearing that enormous helmet that it reinforced that pre-existing perception. Some pundits blame his defeat on the PR mishap.
Unusually skilled politicians can turn the tables — e.g., when Ronald Reagan vowed during a debate with Walter Mondale not to use his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him as a rebuttal to concerns about Reagan’s advanced age. These are exceptions.
It’s unclear whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who swears that he isn’t running for president but nevertheless released a political ad recently in Florida — will deflect his latest bout of bad publicity. Similar to the other examples, Newsom didn’t do anything unusual when he vacationed in the Treasure State. His in-laws own a ranch there. He was married there. He named his daughter Montana. Ordinary Californians often vacation elsewhere.
But, classic Newsom, the governor managed to reinforce the idea that he’s a “rules don’t apply to me” kind of politician. For starters, Newsom’s press office hemmed and hawed about the trip and finally released its details days after CalMatters reported on it. Governors typically announce when they leave the state given that they also temporarily give up their gubernatorial powers during the hiatus.
The reasons for the secrecy become obvious after realizing that Newsom, who loves to berate red states for their less-progressive LGBTQ and abortion policies, headed to one of 22 states where California bans official state travel. “We don’t legislate where people vacation. Never have. The travel ban applies to expending state funds. The governor’s travel is not being paid for by the state,” his office said.
The governor is surprisingly clubfooted at damage control. Instead of putting an end to the scandal with some “buck stops here” transparency, the statement encouraged the media to ask obvious follow-up questions: Sure, the governor is on a family vacation, but doesn’t he always travel with a security detail? Wouldn’t California’s taxpayers pay for that detail? Isn’t that a violation (at least in spirit) of the travel ban?
The governor’s office then said that it doesn’t comment on security, but also told the New York Times that, “On the security side, the law explicitly states there is an exemption for public safety, and the governor has to travel with security.” How about trying a direct answer? Frankly, no one really cares that Newsom enjoyed some time in Montana, or that California Highway Patrol officers protected him from roaming bison and other perils.
The few pennies Newsom may have expended on security during a Montana outing is a nonissue in a state with a $97.5 billion budget surplus. But the episode reminds Californians of every bad perception they have of their governor. He loves moralizing. His Florida advertisement that counterintuitively positioned highly regulated California as the national beacon of freedom was a case in point.
Yet the rules don’t always apply to him. Newsom’s last similar PR disaster came after he dined at a high-end Napa Valley restaurant after urging California residents to stay at home during COVID-19. The New York Times restaurant critic, Tejal Rao, captured why this was such a big deal. It wasn’t just the hypocrisy but the entire nature of a dinner at the French Laundry.
“The restaurant’s luxurious ingredients, meticulous techniques and impeccable, formal service appeared as a kind of culinary anachronism,” he wrote. “The 10-course tasting menu cost about $350 per person, and, during the pandemic, the restaurant started private indoor dining at $850 per person.” That fits Newsom’s persona to a tee.
The Montana debacle captures the same vibe — the sense that, despite the governor’s platitudes, he’s just another privileged guy who does what he pleases yet is quick to stand on his soapbox to denounce others. And he’s also someone who prefers secrecy to forthrightness, even when the latter would bolster his cause. Even the mainstream media is on to him.
“Saying nothing was especially silly since he had to have known both that this would get out, and that when it did, Republicans would exult,” wrote Sacramento Bee columnist Melinda Henneberger. “Of course they are, when he’s only reinforcing the existing narrative that he can’t be bothered to follow his own mandates.” Read the last line again for effect.
That Republicans are outraged won’t really matter in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, but the governor should worry that this is how Californians of all political persuasions increasingly see him. Traveling to Montana is a little thing, but little things can point to big political problems.
Steven Greenhut is the Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.
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