Gavin Newsom's Self Serving Culture War
The California governor built a powerful political career around seizing hot button social issues. The debate with Gov. Ron DeSantis is his latest gambit.
This commentary is a collaboration with Unherd.
Last Thursday, in an unorthodox televised event that many read as a transparent ploy to boost the presidential aspirations of both men, California Gov. Gavin Newsom debated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Neither governor has the nomination to represent their respective parties, but the event served as a mutually advantageous way to play his part.
This event was billed as an epic forum to contrast ideas and opposing models for governance, what Fox News titled: "The Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate.” Of course, that was hardly the case. The televised slugfest was predictably low on substance and high on vitriol.
The debate showcased desperate attempts to create viral moments. DeSantis brought props to make his points, including a copy of a sexually explicit book aimed at children and a map that plots “the human feces that are found on the streets of San Francisco.”
And Newsom rarely missed an opportunity to twist the knife into DeSantis’ flailing presidential bid, repeatedly mocking his sinking place in the polls. "When are you going to drop out and give Nikki Haley a shot to win?" Newsom jabbed.
Amidst the rancor, though, there was a strange sense of clarity.
As a California resident, I’ve watched Newsom’s rise and his particular brand of politics. Newsom has long baited Republican leaders with his culture-war bravado, and last Thursday was no different. He charged that his opponent on the stage was focused on rolling back “hard-earned national rights on voting rights and civil rights, human rights and women’s rights, not just access to abortion, but also access to contraception.” Throughout the night, he repeatedly brought up hot-button issues on race, immigrant rights, and guns, issues that play exceptionally well with the Democratic base.
While Newsom stressed that his advocacy is a fight over the existential balance of maintaining America’s democracy, his forays into the culture war conceal a record that is hardly radical or transformative. In reality, Newsom is a moderate Democrat who has ascended to power by courting headlines and mobilizing voters through the hypnotizing politics of identity but never going so far as to offend his base of wealthy donor interests.
DeSantis, for his part, has offered a mirror image to Newsom’s approach, energizing conservative activists with his promise to “fight back against woke indoctrination” that he says is spreading like a “virus” in American society. Except for a now abandoned push to penalize Disney, he has largely ignored major economic policy and leaned heavily into laws that ban drag shows and curtail what he sees as excesses on university campuses. While DeSantis successfully changed a few academic policies, most of his legislative initiatives have been blocked by the courts. Still, his crusade is broadly popular among the Republican Party base.
Jousting with Newsom on stage at the debate, DeSantis repeatedly brought up squalor and homelessness in California, charging that Democrats threatened to bring such problems to the rest of the country. There was little discussion of the particular government policies and socioeconomic trends that have driven the rampant lawlessness and homeless encampments. The Florida governor charged that they were examples of “leftist ideology” and “leftist principles.”
Maybe so, but Newsom has also hitched his fortunes on a political style that we see rising in both parties, a form of polarizing culture war that captures the emotions of voters while concealing his ambitions. In many ways he has convinced voters to see past these issues by constantly taking on more existential issues of fundamental rights and privileges, from abortion to gay rights, issues that are hardly at stake in modern California.
The pattern began early in his career. It was just months after his first election to lead San Francisco, elected in part to take on the homeless crisis in the city, that Newsom sparked national acclaim by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at city hall. The 2004 gambit, though overturned by local courts and later vindicated by the Supreme Court, was a prescient move that made him a household name and catapulted him into the good graces of social liberals — who showered him with campaign donations and adoration. Meanwhile, the problems on the streets of San Francisco, among the poor and addicted, were never seriously solved.
Last year, Newsom repeated a strategy he has used in the past by airing advertisements that touted the conservative credentials of a Republican opponent he saw as least likely to run a competitive campaign. The ads reminded voters that Brian Dahle, a right-wing state lawmaker, strongly supported gun rights and opposed abortion.
The overture worked as intended thanks to a quirk in the California election system known as the “jungle primary.” GOP voters flocked to Dahle, elevating him as the party nominee, just as Newsom had intended. The culture war blitz eliminated any real challenge to Newsom and he glided to an easy victory.
More recently, Newsom has poured millions of dollars into a Super PAC airing ads outside of California that depict the governor as the last best hope to take on Trump and the Republicans bent on depriving women and minorities of their rights. It's unclear how Newsom, as a governor, would play such a role outside his state.
The moves are part of what DeSantis and many others charge is a “shadow campaign” for the presidency. In any other context, a sitting governor openly campaigning against an incumbent president of his party would provoke outrage among the party faithful. But Newsom’s pledge that he is fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable provides a convenient veneer for his blatant White House ambitions, just as his embrace of culture war issues have served his political fortunes in the past.
The brazen bid is a gamble that President Joe Biden may fall ill or drop out of the campaign at some point, a potential scenario many insiders share.
The idea of a slick California politician seizing the nomination may seem absurd. After all, the state has never looked less glimmering, as DeSantis was keen to point out.
Yet it is precisely Newsom’s Californian path that could help him take the helm of the modern Democratic Party. Though Newsom’s mother struggled financially, much of his life was shaped by his relationship with San Francisco’s gilded elite and its politics of balkanized identity groups. For his entire career, he has learned to navigate the interests of highly educated professionals and jetsetting philanthropists, a coalition that now calls the shots everywhere.
Newsom’s unusual upbringing has made him particularly equipped for the moment. A fourth-generation Irish Catholic from a family with deep ties to old San Francisco patronage machine politics, Newsom was raised by a father who worked closely with the city’s political elite and served as the financial consigliere to the heirs of the Getty Oil fortune. William Newsom, Jr. ingratiated himself in many ways, including hand-delivering a ransom to free one of J. Paul Getty’s grandchildren abducted by the Italian mob. The elder Newsom later successfully lobbied for a change in state law that gave the beneficiaries greater access to the Getty trust fund.
His father’s loyalty translated into a charmed life for Newsom, who became a quasi-adopted member of the Getty family, traveling with the Gettys on African safaris and ritzy vacations. Shortly after graduating college, Newsom went into business with Billy Getty, his childhood friend, and created a lucrative hospitality business of nightclubs, wineries and resorts. Newsom’s business is named “PlumpJack” in honor of an opera written by billionaire Gordon Getty, who showered Newsom with investment money, a Hawaiian property deal, and bankrolled various parties and wedding events in honor of the now governor.