Newsom is never the answer (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

July 12, 2023   4 mins

For many Democrats, Gavin Newsom has become an object of desire. Aged 55, the Governor of California’s relative youth, coiffed good looks and ability to speak in something close to coherent English contrasts with their bumbling leader, whom as many as two in three Americans feel is not entirely up to the job. As a result, the chorus calling for Newsom to become America’s 47th President has been growing steadily louder.

Not surprisingly, Newsom himself seems to be waging his own campaign to achieve that end. He is, according to Politico, acting “like the president-in-exile”, promoting a new gun control constitutional amendment, working to ban petrol-powered cars and threatening to arrest the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, for “kidnapping” migrants. Indeed, his profile seems to be growing just as Biden’s handlers ramp up their efforts to insulate the President from the media, his poor cognitive state posing a danger both to himself and to his legislative programme.

Yet Newsom’s sparkling ascendency might dim somewhat if the media bothered to consider what is actually happening in his fiefdom. Flicking through the mainstream press, one could be forgiven for realising that Newsom has presided over California’s fall from economic pre-eminence: the Golden State is now home to record homelessness, sub-par GDP growth, the nation’s highest poverty rate, a tech downturn fuelled by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and a consistently underperforming public education system. These factors have fuelled a powerful out-migration trend — up 135% in just two years. Recent polls find upwards of 40% of residents are considering leaving, while the rising tide of wealthy emigrees has already taken away $20 billion in adjusted income since 2018.

When the state was flush, Newsom scored progressive points by handing out subsidies to poorer Californians, creating what was heralded as an ideal “blue welfare state”. California certainly spends more of its budget on welfare than virtually any other state, twice as much as its arch-rival Texas. But, at its best, this growing welfare state reflects a staggering inequality, in which 20% of state wealth is held within 30 zip codes that account for just 2% of the population. At its worst, it comes at the expense of neglecting basic infrastructure, such as roads and water supply.

And this is all in keeping with Newsom’s personal brand of politics. Largely financed by San Francisco’s elite, notably the heirs of the Getty family fortune, he presents the face of an emerging Democratic Party based on what the late Fred Siegel called “an upstairs, downstairs” coalition of the gentry rich, the dependent poor and the vast, well-paid union bureaucracy that serves them. On paper, then, Newsom stands in contrast to the legendary Democratic governor Pat Brown, whose investments in roads, bridges, research universities and water expanded opportunities for ordinary Californians in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Today, Brown’s successor is far more concerned with issues that interest the gentry Left: gender and race politics and, most critically, climate change.

None of these obsessions provides an answer to the state’s economic inequality. As a recent Breakthrough Institute report demonstrates, Newsom’s drive to make California a leader in the much-ballyhooed “energy transition” has led to high energy and housing costs. California used to be a major energy provider, with a large, well-paid and unionised workforce. Now, as Newsom seeks to eliminate the industry, California gets its oil from Saudi Arabia, importing more of its energy than any mainland state. Elsewhere, the state ranks a poor 42nd in fiscal responsibility, its transport systems face huge deficits, its hospitals are in deep decline, and it accounts for roughly half of all Americans who are unsheltered and living outside.

So what issue now dominates his agenda? How to deal with a reparations task force that has since landed him with an $800 billion bill that the state clearly cannot pay.

Now, imagine if, in the run-up to the 2024 election, Newsom has to debate someone other than Donald Trump. A head-to-head with Florida’s Ron DeSantis over their respective state’s trajectory, for instance, would not be pretty. Newsom would have to explain why his state lags behind those, such as Florida and Texas, that he routinely attacks — but which enjoy large budget surpluses, rising tax revenues, generate more jobs and, in some cases, are initiating tax cuts.

Here, Newsom’s dilemma reflects a wider weakness of the current crop of Democratic Party leaders — a consistent record of poor governance. This applies not only to Newsom, but to Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, both of whom are widely pitched by Democratic operatives as possible Biden replacements.

Pritzker, although capable of funding his own campaign, would run as Governor of a state that ranks near the bottom of almost every survey. Meanwhile, Michigan’s Whitmer may seem more attractive, but she would be hard-pressed to sell herself as an avatar of a “Michigan miracle”. Like the other media darlings, she presides over a consistently underperforming economy suffering from out-migration, and now faces, with the electric car mandates, the prospect of large layoffs in the state’s signature auto industry.

Yet arguably the worst examples of poor Democratic governance are found at the municipal levels. Democrats control virtually every big city, the majority of which are suffering both economic and demographic decline. Once-celebrated cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis are all largely run by progressives. In every case, the biggest losers from this kind of one-party rule are the very people that progressives seek to champion by adopting the ideology of “anti-racism” and affirmative action. Over the last decade, Los Angeles actually lost foreign-born residents, who have been flocking to the very sunbelt metros — Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Miami — that Newsom likes to caricature as “racist hellholes”.

And on a municipal level, too, Newsom bears some of the blame. During the 2000s, as Mayor of San Francisco, he presided over a tech boom that accentuated both housing shortages and an explosion of homelessness. He promised to address both but the city he left behind, once arguably the most blessed in America, is now among the most cursed — a dystopia with sky-high property crime, homeless encampments, and a largely emptied downtown.

For the Democrats hailing Newsom as the saviour of their party, the legacy of these failures extends well beyond California. Until they can find presidential candidates with a positive record of accomplishment, their only option will be to campaign largely on cultural issues — particularly if faced with someone other than Trump. The economic argument, after all, has already been lost. As is evident from his gubernatorial spats with DeSantis, a Newsom 2024 campaign will pitch at the farthest end of the cultural divide, embracing no limits on abortion, early transgender treatments and undocumented immigration.

At first glance, the blow-dried Newsom may seem a fine antidote to Biden’s decrepitude, but his elevation would simply reinforce his party’s record of failed governance. If Newsom is the future of the Democratic Party, then the future of America, particularly after Trump, is more likely to be Republican.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)