Newsom's Unwelcome Stirring of Democrats' 2020 Pot

Newsom's Unwelcome Stirring of Democrats' 2020 Pot
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Newsom's Unwelcome Stirring of Democrats' 2020 Pot
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Quicker than you can sing “Oops! I Did It Again,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom has interjected himself into national Democratic politics with his moratorium on capital punishment in America’s nation-state.

That’s “oops” as in: Every Democrat who wants to unseat President Trump now must figure out where they stand on the death penalty. For some triangulating Democrats, that’s a tricky balancing act given that capital punishment is despised by the party’s progressive base but is far more popular in the crime-and-order Heartland.

And “again” as in: It’s the second time in a presidential cycle that Newsom has complicated the lives of his Democratic brethren. Think back to 2004 and marriage licenses being handed to same-sex couples in San Francisco (Newsom was the city’s mayor at the time), while John Kerry played rope-a-dope with what all was happening in the City by the Bay.

Newsom’s intrusion this time around may not be as serious as it was 15 years ago – that is, if you believe the 2020 election is as simple as Democrats winning back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The first two of those states don’t impose the death penalty. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on his state’s death penalty four years ago.

However, two Democratic hopefuls (one announced, the other biding his time) have a problem thanks to Newsom’s virtue play. Joe Biden’s complicated record on racial justice includes supporting capital punishment. California Sen. Kamala Harris won’t appreciate another reason to revisit her messy narrative as California’s attorney general. (It probably also didn’t please Harris, whose campaign seems to have plateaued since a splashy kickoff in late January, to see her fellow Californian steal the spotlight for a couple of days.)

Will Newsom do this again to the Democratic field? He has an ambitious soup-to-nuts progressive agenda that ranges from universal preschool to universal health care. Unlike his predecessor, Jerry Brown, Newsom doesn’t shy away from national media (last week, that included mixing it up with “CBS Morning News” and the ladies from “The View”).

But is the attention granted Newsom and California a good thing for a Democratic Party looking to better reacquaint itself with states not within a drone overflight of the two coasts? To understand Gavin Newsom is to appreciate what it is to be a connected, metrosexual, forever-in-search-of-enlightenment son of the San Francisco Bay Area – stylistically and intellectually.

Raised in Marin County and educated at Santa Clara University (a 10-minute drive from Intel’s corporate headquarters), Newsom started a business in San Francisco (with a boost from the oil-rich Getty family) before becoming that city’s mayor, later returning to Marin County to raise a family before winning the governorship.

That’s a life lived and a mindset that’s evolved within a 60-mile radius of the Bay Area – arguably, the bluest bubble in American politics. Now that Newson is governor, he can export that worldview beyond California’s boundaries. That could spell trouble come the time Democrats have to sell a more moderate persona in America’s swing states.

Here are three examples of why what happens in California maybe should stay in California if the goal is taking down Trump next year.

Unionized Day Care. This bill introduced by state Assemblywoman Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat, would allow self-employed child-care workers who serve subsidized families to collectively bargain with the state.

Adding to the argument of underpaid workers, there’s the spectacle of teachers going on strike coast to coast, including contentious walkouts in Los Angeles and Oakland that recently were settled. Does the 2020 Democratic nominee, obviously beholden to teachers’ unions financed by members’ political dues, really want to get into a matter that potentially divides working parents and their child-care providers?

War on Cars. Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, wants to ban the sale of internal combustion passenger vehicles in California starting in 2040.

That might play well among California liberals (Newsom’s a Tesla owner; the Tesla 3 was the fourth best-selling car in California last year, trailing only the Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord). But do Green New Deal Democrats already grilled over the notion of being anti-hamburger, want to be on record as opposing pickup trucks and the SUVs that transport kids to the land of Happy Meals (the best-selling cars in Wisconsin in 2018: the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado trucks)?

And let’s not even discuss the New Green Deal’s proposed prohibition on airplanes.

Jurisprudence. At issue here isn’t what’s making its way through the Legislature, but rather the courts. Not including its involvement in the 16 states’ legal challenge to presidential border emergency declaration, California has sued President Trump 46 times over the past two years.

The Democratic base relishes the concept of an anti-Trump “resistance” willing to slug it out in the courts. But in non-coastal America, does the next Democratic nominee want to get bogged down in arguments over immigration “sanctuary” policy (California filed a lawsuit two years ago over the Trump administration’s decision to bar law-enforcement grants to “sanctuary cities”) and birth control mandates (two years ago, California challenged the administration over its end to rules requiring employers to provide contraception coverage in their health plans).

Such defiance plays well in California, which is why the nation-state’s 55 electoral votes are a mortal lock for the Democrats in 2020. But the more Gov. Newsom and California creep their way into the national conversation and serve as Democratic litmus tests, the more it makes getting to 270 electoral votes all the more challenging.

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow, follows California and national politics and hosts Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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