The Pursuit Of “Truth” Or Higher Office?

Thursday, June 23, 2022
Image credit: 
istock

Among the more curious news items of late: California governor Gavin Newsom taking up residence in Donald Trump’s Truth Social space—i.e., the former president’s alternative to the “Twitterverse.”  

Newsom didn’t wait long to spring into action, his first Truth Social post containing a video that, the governor claimed, explains “America’s red state murder problem.” Newsom soon struck again on Trump’s site, this time asking, “Why are more people dying of COVID-19 in red states?”

The California governor’s obsession with quality of life en états rouges raises two questions: Does it raise his stature as a national Democratic figure? Is this the best use of his time as the chief executive of an exceedingly complicated state government?

The answer to the added-stature question: yes. Look no further than this fawning Atlantic column, which extols Newsom’s virtues as the rare roaring progressive lion at a time when “the left desperately needs someone to stand up to the Republicans’ rights rollback”—in other words, someone has to step in for a struggling President Biden.

Not that the gubernatorial homage necessarily sees things realistically —or so some rival publications would have you believe. As a San Francisco Chronicle headline acidly noted: “The Atlantic Publishes Article Fantasizing About Gavin Newsom Replacing Joe Biden.”

It’s the second question—Newsom’s use of time and social media venting—that’s more complicated.

America is a free country, one in which the 50 governors are free to look beyond their respective state borders. I know this phenomenon firsthand, having worked for a California governor who regularly was at odds with the federal government over border control. That governor, Pete Wilson, had an end game in mind for California: get Washington to accept responsibility for lax border enforcement and thus reimburse the Golden State for the billions California spent annually on government services related to its undocumented population (education, health care, and incarceration).

That drama occurred nearly three decades ago. Today, the question is whether some prominent governors are using their respective soap boxes for political or policy gain—in doing so, perhaps placing personal ambition ahead of their constituents’ concerns.

Let’s take the example of Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker. He’s pitched the Democratic National Committee on his state hosting the 2024 national convention (is Chicago, the scene of nearly 1,000 shootings in the first five months of 2022, the right backdrop for a party obsessed with gun control?).

One can argue that landing the convention means tourism revenue for city and state, so let’s give Pritzker a pass. But last weekend, the governor of Illinois deemed it necessary to travel to Maine and New Hampshire (make of that what you will vis-à-vis 2024 speculation) to tell fellow Democrats that “the GOP is naked and afraid.”

Republican governors play the game too. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, for example, isn’t shy about Texas’s approach to border enforcement. “What Texas needs to do is just send them [undocumented aliens] back across the border,” DeSantis said at a recent press conference. He added: “Texas shouldn’t let them come across the border to begin with. They just walk right across the river. No one is stopping them.”

As with most anything DeSantis utters, that salvo raises the question of what matters more to Florida’s governor: his state’s border integrity, or getting the jump on fellow Republicans as a loudest voice in the crowd when it comes to a topic that helped to propel Donald Trump to national office.

Which takes us back to Newsom and his determination to speak truth to power on Trump’s Truth site.

We know that Newsom isn’t doing this to be the most popular figure (other than Trump) on the former president’s social media site. If it’s online “attaboys” that Newsom seeks, Twitter is the more sensible venue (as of late last week, Newsom had more than two million followers on Twitter versus less than 10,000 on Truth Social).       

Nor was it the first time of late in that Newsom has meddled in the affairs of other states, as previously discussed in this space.

Still, if the idea is to stand up for a particular ideology, Newsom is going about his pontification in an odd way. Returning to the politics of the early 1990s, part of what established then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton as an ascendant national voice was his chairmanship of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (it championed free trade, welfare reform, and a stronger military)—ironically, as it turned out years later, with Clinton feeling the need to defend “third-way politics” after a far more progressive Barack Obama bested Clinton’s spouse and reclaimed the presidency for the Democratic Party.

But Newsom isn’t speaking on behalf of an organization, it would seem, or, for that matter, an organized scheme of Democrats. Rather, it’s one governor raising his voice. As such—and even if Newsom’s heart is in the right place and his foremost concern is that of his party’s sagging fortunes—the red-state bashing comes across as the self-serving act of a politician soon to be term-limited and trying to figure his next move.

Is there a better use of Gavin Newsom’s time? I’d begin by looking at the financial pages and a bear market that could have a devastating impact on California’s finances a year from now.

On the first trading day of 2022, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a then record 36,585 after a daily gain of 246 points. On June 15, which is the state constitutional deadline for California’s legislature to pass a new budget (otherwise they forfeit their bay and per diems) the Dow fell by more than 741 points (a 2.4% drop) and stumbled below the 30,000 level for the first time since January 2021.

The significance? California’s budget is at the mercy of an inconsistent revenue stream that’s fueled by capital gains (taxed at the same 13.3% rate as income in California) and the ultra-wealthy (about 100,000 taxpayers with incomes above $1 million—only one-half of 1% of all tax filers—collectively pay about 40% income taxes) who buy and sell stocks and move real estate. In a recession and bear market, where stocks aren’t traded and housing sales are cooling off, that revenue stream becomes more of a trickle.

While Newsom can’t control the markets (remember the Duke Brothers trying to “turn the machines back on” in the movie Trading Places?), he could use his social media presence to prepare his fellow Californians for the upcoming fiscal adjustment.

Other productive uses of the governor’s time? California’s drought comes to mind (Newsom getting dinged for avoiding mandatory water restrictions). Unlike the Biden White House, Newsom hasn’t engaged of late in a war of words with the oil industry. But rather than bash Big Oil for “pain at the pump,” Newsom might ask why it is that California hasn’t opened a new refinery since the second year of the Reagan presidency?

And, if he wanted to be provocative, Newsom could take the Bay Area feel-good moment that is the Golden State Warriors’ championship and ask a few harsh questions about the economics of professional sports (should California, a state that rarely misses a chance to regulate the private sector, clamp down on a ticket-resale industry that makes attending the NBA Finals an unaffordable dream for many a working-class family?).

Perhaps Gavin Newsom is on Donald Trump’s social media site for one other reason we haven’t discussed: just as Trump was permanently banned by Twitter, California’s governor hopes to earn a Trump-issued time-out. The benefit for Newsom: he gets to play the role of progressive martyr—and then he can turn his attention to more pressing state business.

In this uncertain economy, and with a new state budget about to go into effect, that means readying California lawmakers for some tough decisions that may lie ahead.