It’s amazingly simple and effective. In an ad released on July 4, California Governor Gavin Newsom stands in a verdant backyard, his trademark slicked-back dark hair a bit less slick and grayer than earlier in his career. He channels Democrats’ mounting alarm at Republican incursions on “freedom,” speaking directly not to Californians but to Floridians.
“Freedom? It’s under attack in your state,” he says straight to camera, as a slow guitar version of “America the Beautiful” twangs in the background. “Your Republican leaders”—Newsom never names Governor Ron DeSantis, but it’s obvious—are restricting speech, banning books, making it harder to vote, and “even criminalizing women and doctors,” he declares, as text derides Florida’s heinous abortion restrictions. The man who first gained national attention by legalizing gay marriage, albeit temporarily, as San Francisco mayor 18 years ago invited Floridians to “join the fight, or join us in California, where we still believe in….” Newsom then ticks off various “freedoms” Californians believe in, and ends on the “freedom to love.”
The ad is labeled a “campaign ad.” But Newsom, having survived a recall last year, faces an easy reelection campaign in November. Was the 30-second spot really an unofficial declaration of a 2024 presidential campaign? A lot of people seem to hope so. Beltway reporters and some progressives seem to be itching for a Democratic free-for-all, in the event that President Biden doesn’t run—and in some cases, even if he does. Newsom’s ad gave them license to speculate wildly.
Forgive me if I’m not among them.
I had a wonderful holiday weekend with friends and family, marred of course by the Highland Park murders. It was also dimmed, a little (I’m not comparing these things) by those same friends and family incessantly asking me who the 2024 nominee should or will be. (Political writers never get a holiday from political talk.) Virtually everyone hopes it’s not Biden—nobody wants a primary against him, but most hope he packs it in after one term. I was pretty much alone in not wanting that to happen.
I don’t know exactly what I want, but I do know what I fear: a vicious race—a racist and sexist melee that makes the 2020 primary seem like a group hug. Twenty twenty-four could be so much more brutal.
In 2020, let’s remember, we had a wide-open primary. Senator Bernie Sanders made a second run; four Democratic women senators ran—I didn’t endorse, but I was on record wanting a female nominee—along with two Black senators, a Latino former mayor, a gay mayor, and various white congressmen. I know I’m forgetting someone; at one point I think there were 22. Oh right: a former vice president, widely written off, including by me.
Spoiler alert: Biden won. He won partly thanks to too many candidates’ splitting constituencies—whether women or people of color or progressives. And he won because of a bias for familiarity and perceived electability in the Democratic primary base. That gave us Hillary Clinton in 2016, whom I supported out of the gate back then, and Biden in 2020, whom I did not. Like almost all Democrats, of course, along with some independents and even some Republicans, I got behind him by November, enthusiastically.
Now, Biden is letting many Democrats down. We’ve learned the administration had no plan for the Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, even with two months’ notice (and even now). It’s been overmatched by the crisis of gun violence, by young white men, from Buffalo to Uvalde to, most recently, the Highland Park shooting at a Fourth of July parade, which underscored, in a gruesome irony, that America’s treasured “freedom” is just another word for valuing gun rights above human life.
Biden’s lackluster response to the suburban Chicago shooting has been widely contrasted with the blistering response from Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. “If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” he said. “I’m furious. I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence.” But to be fair, Pritzker is the governor of the state hit by the latest gun massacre; Biden governs 50 states and the District of Columbia. He came out fiery after Buffalo and Uvalde. Our current pace of mass shootings, an estimated 319 halfway into the year, would require almost two hair-on-fire addresses a day.
But thanks to their July 4 leadership, Pritzker and Newsom have so far emerged as front-runners in the mid-2022 Democratic presidential primary—which, of course, doesn’t exist, but which could, confoundingly, matter.
I have a hard time giving up on Biden. I already did that. But he was nominated and elected anyway. What you saw is what you got: a decent liberal too wedded to institutionalism, incrementalism, and a bipartisan past that’s long gone. He’s now pushing 80 years old. If he runs, I think he will be the nominee, without a primary challenge except from, perhaps, an ambitious crackpot. Sanders has already said he won’t run; nobody else starts with that kind of base. Or any base at all.
But if Biden steps aside? His family might tell him he ought to, for his sake and theirs. Those children and grandchildren. The comfort of beloved elder statesman status reclaimed. It’s alluring.
Let’s state it plainly: Vice President Kamala Harris would be the presumptive nominee. (Biden might have been in 2016, except his son Beau had recently died, and Obama seemed primed to turn it over to Clinton, his tenacious 2008 opponent, after he appointed her secretary of state, decisions I don’t want to revisit right now.) If Biden doesn’t run, Harris will certainly face a challenge. But I can’t imagine it would be from Newsom.
I covered their respective runs, for mayor and district attorney, in 2003. They had, and still have, many of the same patrons and funders in Northern California and around the state. They were fiercely competitive in the early days of their mayoral and DA terms, respectively. But they settled into a mutually supportive groove, each moving up steadily: Harris elected as state attorney general in 2010 and then senator in 2016; Newsom as lieutenant governor in 2010 and then governor in 2018. He was one of Harris’s most stalwart national surrogates right up until she ended her 2020 presidential run.
Harris also starts out with the base of support Biden’s candidacy denied her in 2020: Black voters. President-maker Jim Clyburn, South Carolina representative and Democratic caucus whip, has already said if Biden doesn’t run, he’ll support Harris. Hillary Clinton learned how Clyburn’s lack of endorsement hurt in 2008 and helped in 2016—she effectively secured the nomination against Sanders by winning the South Carolina primary that year. And everybody learned what it meant in 2020, when Clyburn endorsed Biden, who hadn’t yet won a caucus or primary—and it carried him to the White House.
But even if Harris doesn’t draw a Newsom challenge, I am pretty sure she’ll invite others. And then there’s the question about whether she could win the presidency, which many people doubt. I’m agnostic. I don’t think she’s been given a glide path to succeeding Biden by his administration. She’s either been hidden or given thankless tasks, like voting rights—she can’t get rid of the filibuster by herself!—or a grim border portfolio whose parameters people disagree about.
I’m biased, as I’ve admitted before: I’ve known Harris for almost 20 years, and I think she is a smart woman with progressive values who’s always been too cautious by half. But Black women, typically, have to be—especially if they have national ambitions, which it’s always been assumed Harris did, going back to her first run for San Francisco district attorney. Before she entered the 2020 primary, she could boast that she’d never lost a race. You could argue she still hasn’t, since she withdrew in December 2019 with her campaign mired in dysfunction, but that would be too cute by half. Harris has to take the L there.
But as Biden has been criticized for inadequately reacting to the Highland Park tragedy, Harris detoured there, unannounced on Tuesday, to visit the parade and massacre route and console first responders and families. That was kind of interesting. The past doesn’t have to be prologue, even if it often is.
So as someone who’s told friends and family I don’t want to go there, I just partially went there. That’s where my holiday “freedom” took me. I am choosing to believe that Newsom is trying to instruct Biden and other Democrats how to reply to the grave danger to democracy—and to Democrats—they’re facing, but not combating. Newsom is young enough, 54, to look several presidential cycles ahead, especially given the gerontocracy that currently rules.
I don’t see a Newsom-Harris throwdown, let alone Newsom-Biden. We still have to acknowledge the vast well of Democratic discontent with Biden. I’m not sure what comes next, but he still has time—at least six months—to turn around Democrats, if not other voters. And other voters, let’s hope, will be reliably repelled by whomever the Republicans choose, whether it’s Trump or the ignoble DeSantis. Also: Let’s hope those two awful men will destroy one another in a Republican primary.