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If Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are going to create space for hate and human rights violations, then why should anyone complain about California Gavin Newsom creating spaces that protect the rest of us?
That question should be posed to California pundits who have responded with knee-jerk cynicism to Newsom’s many interventions on behalf of Trump’s targets. These pundits describe the governor’s forays into national disputes over abortion, immigration, and LGBTQ rights as political ploys — performed in service of presidential ambitions.
The truth is the exact opposite. Whether he’s trumpeting a maximalist pro-abortion stance on out-of-state billboards or banning state-funded travel to places hostile to LGTBQ people, Newsom is actually throwing away whatever chances he might have had of being president.
Getting elected president, if you’re a Democrat, is about soft-pedaling divisive issues, and building broad, diverse coalitions. That’s how Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the White House. But Newsom’s constant blasts into cultural politics divide the country and make enemies.
While picking fights with Trump and like-minded governors might good politics, Newsom is also calling out national Democrats, including Biden, for not being combative enough. And his national battles are hurting his presidential chances, particularly in battleground states like Arizona and North Carolina (to which California banned state-funded travel).
So why is Gavin Newsom, of all people, engaged in political self-sacrifice?
There are three possible explanations — two peculiar to our very peculiar governor, and one stemming from California’s growing estrangement from the U.S..
The first explanation: Newsom simply can’t help himself.
The governor has always lacked discipline in communication. He uses three big words when one short one will do. He volunteers arguments against his own policies. He offers too many details, like an overeager waiter at his restaurants, telling you about all the specials, when you just want to order.
And Newsom’s self-indulgence has verged into personal recklessness — such as dining maskless at the French Laundry during the pandemic.
That’s the ugly side of Newsom’s undiscipline. But there is an admirable side to it, too — which is the second explanation. While disciplined politicians try to avoid fights, Newsom tends to jump into disputes, and draw fire to himself. Why? I can’t read his mind or put this child of divorce on a psychiatrist’s couch. But, from reviewing his public statements, I believe Newsom intervenes when he feels someone needs protection.
Just look at his endless budget press conferences, where he explains almost every expenditure in defensive language. He is constantly protecting — the climate, the environment, the homeless, children, this community, that interest group.
This protective instinct is why he’s jumped into national politics. If media are going to give the Trumpists space to spew hate, attack democracy, and spread fear among women and immigrants and gay people, how can he sit on the sidelines?
His recent decision to place billboards in seven states that eliminated abortion rights is a perfect example of the Newsomian mindset. The boards tell women that California will protect their right to bodily autonomy and to abortion. If such messages turn off Ohio and Florida voters — whom Democratic presidential contenders need — so what?
Of course, these interventions aren’t heroic. Here at home, his national blasts are good politics, feeding his base. But Newsom’s California supremacy is poison in the other 49 states, where Americans can’t accept the truth that we know better.
That’s why Newsom is not sacrificing much when he sabotages his future White House prospects. A Californian doesn’t have much chance at the presidency anyway. And Newsom is demographically wrong for a Democratic party that needs to nominate more women and people of color.
But Newsom is perfectly cast to call out while male political bullies. And who knows? While he’ll never be America’s president, he still could lead a nation someday. If our state and the rest of the country grow further apart, Newsom could be the first president of an independent California Republic.
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