Column: If Newsom sees himself as president, he should move into position to run. That’s what he’s doing

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks with reporters.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks with reporters in the Senate Carriageway of the U.S. Capitol Building on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom is moving into position to possibly run for president, regardless of what he says or tells himself.

He may not be plotting a White House bid. Or he may be. He insists he’s not. But you can bet there’s at least a subconscious pull to the Oval Office. It’s the nature of the political beast.

“It’s difficult for any governor of the biggest state with more people than Canada to look in the mirror in the morning and not see a president staring back at you,” says Democratic consultant Garry South, the chief strategist for former Gov. Gray Davis.


“But I think people are misreading what he’s doing,” South continues. “He’s royally pissed off and doesn’t think Democrats have been aggressive enough fighting back” against Republican culture warriors.

“He’s decided somebody has to step up to the plate. And he’s totally right.”

OK, that’s what Newsom has been repeatedly saying in interviews.

But practically every California governor since World War II has dreamed of the White House.

Gov. Earl Warren was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1948.

Democratic Gov. Pat Brown had his sights on the vice presidency but was passed over.

Gov. Ronald Reagan ran for president the first chance he got — his second year in office. He finally won after two more attempts.

Democrat Jerry Brown also ran in his sophomore year and again a second time as governor — then a third time while out of office.

Republican Gov. George Deukmejian was rare. He didn’t want any part of a White House bid and turned down a vice presidential overture.

But Republican Gov. Pete Wilson ran briefly in 1995 and it ended in disaster. Throat surgery rendered him virtually speechless on the stump.


Democrat Davis probably would have run in 2004 if he hadn’t been recalled as governor the year before.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have loved to run for president but was ineligible because he wasn’t a natural-born citizen.

Jerry Brown probably would have run a fourth time in 2016 but figured he was too old. He was 78 — one year younger than President Biden is now.

Gov. Newsom blasted red-state efforts to ban books and limit education about race in public schools.

July 14, 2022

That brings us back to Newsom. What’s he up to? Has he been bit by the Potomac Bug?

Presidential speculation — the lifeblood of White House wannabes — was further fueled when Newsom ran television ads in Florida on July 4 denouncing the Sunshine State’s conservative social policies and plugging liberal California’s.

“Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” Newsom asserted in the ad. “Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors.”

He urged Floridians “to join the fight or join us in California, where we still believe in Freedom.”

He spent only $105,000 on the ad — a pittance in political money —and ran it on conservative-watched Fox News stations.

I personally think it looks tacky for the governor of one state to poke a finger in the eye of another across the country. Newsom seems to be going out of his way to pick a fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential GOP presidential contender. But that’s apparently old school thinking that doesn’t fit modern polarized politics.

“Great,” South says of the ad. “Get in their face.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom targets DeSantis, Trump and Florida’s policies in a campaign ad running in that state, and invites Floridians to the West Coast.

July 3, 2022

“Biden, bless his heart, is generally doing a good job. But he’s too marinated in that Senate club mentality he was part of for 36 years. He cannot transform himself into a gut puncher. He’s still stuck in that Washington, D.C., ‘Dear friend and colleague’ [lingo]. Those are not the times in which we’re living.”

Newsom’s move was smart politically. He looked bold and energetic to Democratic progressives. Many are longing for a national leader in the culture wars, especially to fight for abortion rights and gun control.

And, importantly, Newsom got on the national media radar.

“He spent $100,000 and got a billion dollars’ worth of publicity,” says Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio.

“Then he went to the [nation’s] capital when the president was overseas. A brilliant strategy to get tongues wagging for ’24. Why else would he do it?”

Newsom’s answer: He’s “sick and tired” of California “getting bashed 24/7 by the right wing. I’m not going to just sit back and watch,” the governor told Times reporter Taryn Luna before heading to Washington, D.C., last week.

“What I can’t accept is being absent in this national debate when democracy is quite literally in peril.”

A Newsom insider, who asked not to be identified, said the governor is just “having fun — kind of like an athlete playing loose. No pressure. He’s disgusted that no one has been taking people on.”

But he’s getting national attention as a potential presidential candidate — not as a cultural war combatant. For a politician to sustain national leadership, he must be seen as someone who could potentially set national policy. A governor can’t do that.

Newsom insists he has “subzero interest” in running for president. He has wisely said he’d never contest Biden. If Biden didn’t run, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the early Democratic front-runner. Newsom also has said he wouldn’t challenge his fellow Californian.

But if Harris ran and bombed, as she did in 2020, would Newsom capitalize on the opportunity and leap into the void? Politics is about luck and timing.

If Newsom sees a president in the mirror — and of course he does — he should be moving into position to run. And that’s what he’s doing.