Newsom to Biden: I'll wait my turn ... for you

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Methinks the governor doth protest too much. If one thinks announcing a presidential campaign before Thanksgiving is too premature, then announcing a non-candidacy before December is just about equally so.

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And it’s not at all clear that Gavin Newsom’s declaration is entirely a statement of loyalty either:

Gov. Gavin Newsom has won three elections in five years in America’s largest state, is apoplectic about his party’s messaging defects and follows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the right-wing media ecosystem with a zeal that would put some opposition researchers to shame.

But Newsom wants the word to go forth: He’s not going to challenge President Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

“I’ve told everyone in the White House, from the chief of staff to the first lady,” he recounted to me as we sat on the top floor of California’s now-ceremonial governor’s mansion on election night.

His message to Ron Klain and Jill Biden over the summer — when he visited Washington amid growing speculation, and considerable West Wing irritation, that he was plotting a primary challenge — was to count him as a firm supporter of Biden’s reelection: “I’m all in, count me in,” he said he told them.

First off, why would this be surprising or even necessary in the first term of a party’s own president? Well, Joe Biden has made it necessary, at least until the surprisingly limited losses Democrats suffered in the midterms. Biden’s presidency has created a massive inflationary wave, a sustained increase in the cost of gasoline, and the latter will likely start moving up again soon thanks to Biden’s refusal to expand American production. A recession may or may not be on its way too, and meanwhile Biden was unable to deliver on the agenda of the party base.

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Before the midterms, it looked like Newsom and others would have to pull a Eugene McCarthy/Bobby Kennedy 1968 on Biden to rescue the party. Now that Biden avoided a midterm catastrophe — or more accurately, Republicans blew a golden opportunity to provide one — the opening for a 1968 strategy has closed. Suddenly Newsom wants to make public declarations of fealty to Biden, so much so that Newsom tells Jonathan Martin that he won’t run at all in 2024 no matter what Biden does.

Don’t bet on that, either. Newsom spent all this year relentlessly raising his national profile by taking on Republican governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, clearly making his bid to become the heir presumptive of the Democrat Party, and clearly attempting to eclipse heir apparent Kamala Harris in the process. Newsom ran political ad campaigns in both Florida and Texas proclaiming California as the true “freedom state,” a laughable claim to the stream of California ex-pats who have been leaving in droves during Newsom’s tenure. He didn’t run those ad campaigns just to be cute; he ran them to position himself as the Democrats’ leading contender to replace Biden.

Newsom spent a lot of money and time in 2022 on that effort to promote himself over others — and one Democrat in particular. Martin never reports in this fluffy Politico piece that Newsom has sworn off of challenging Harris, whom Biden chose as his bridge to the progressives and a succession candidate. Harris only comes up once in Martin’s profile of Newsom the Loyal, in fact, and then only to note Newsom’s own claim of friendship with the VP. The contrast between Newsom’s obsequious declarations of loyalty to Biden and the lack thereof for Harris make it pretty clear that neither would really be obstacles to Newsom’s ambitions.

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Positioning is one thing, however; succeeding is quite another. Martin also repeatedly hails Newsom as a better messenger for the party than its current leadership. How well did those Newsom “freedom state” ad campaigns in Florida and Texas work out for Democrats? In Florida, DeSantis beat former governor Charlie Crist by nineteen points and won all but five counties, as Republicans swept all of the statewide races. In Texas, Greg Abbott trounced perennial RFK-wannabe Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke by eleven points — and the GOP swept the statewide races in the Lone Star State as well. In fact, the places where the midterm “red wave” actually materialized was in three states (other than New York) where Newsom went all-in on his campaigning: Florida, Texas, and House races in California.

So much for the better messaging, eh?

Joe Biden’s not the future of the Democrat Party, obviously. Neither is Kamala Harris, who’s barely an afterthought in this Politico piece. However, based on Newsom’s impact on the midterms, neither is Gavin Newsom. He might well be the next Beto, at least in terms of media fluffery, self-delusion, and electoral impact.

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