As the new year got underway, conservative radio host and onetime California gubernatorial hopeful Larry Elder announced that he wouldn’t run against Gavin Newsom in the 2022 election.
The decision was met with something of a collective yawn. Of course Elder—a self-promoting huckster in the Trumpian mold—wouldn’t run in a general election, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two-to-one. After all, having gotten trounced by Newsom in a recall election where the rules of the contest strongly favored those who sought to oust the governor, conservatives in California know that they’re not about to win statewide offices again in a regular election anytime soon. That’s particularly true given current budget numbers: California’s heading into 2022 with analysts predicting a stunning $31 billion budget surplus, and, looking down the road, an additional surplus of many billions of dollars each year over the coming years.
That surplus is allowing Newsom to reinvent California’s safety net in ways that will, over the coming period, fundamentally change the state. The $100 billion California Comeback Plan, which Newsom kicked into gear in October, a month after the recall, channels huge amounts of money into child care, tax credits, environmental projects, affordable housing, expanded health care access, and other vital safety net changes.
After surviving the recall, Newsom’s popularity was far higher in California than Joe Biden’s is on the national stage. In mid-September, the California governor’s approval rating hit 57 percent. The president’s popularity rating, by contrast, is now in the toilet, with 56 percent of respondents to the latest poll saying they disapprove of his job performance.
There’s a lesson here: Newsom and the Democratic majority in the statehouse are effectively using political power to pass vital, and popular, reforms that, in turn, are shoring up their political popularity. By contrast, the president and the Democrats in Congress are so stalemated, and so held hostage to the machinations of Senators Manchin and Sinema, as well as to the stonewalling tactics of the GOP in the Senate, that they seem entirely unable to leverage their power to pass vital legislation; and the result is that the voting public, seeing a party with majority control of Congress that is unable to marshal its power effectively, is turning on it.
There’s another lesson, too. In February of last year, as the pandemic raged in California, Newsom’s approval ratings started to tank. Last spring and early summer, the California governor’s popularity was at about the point that Biden’s is now. In other words, not good. Many commentators, myself included, argued that he was in real danger of losing the recall. Yet by August his numbers had rebounded, in September he handily defeated the recall effort, and in October he shored up his support going into the next regular election cycle by pushing the ambitious Comeback Plan. At this point in the election cycle, the odds are pretty high that Newsom will be reelected to another full term.
Biden, and the Democrats in Congress, still have a chance to turn things around before the 2022 midterms. After all, while the public’s mood has soured, and while the Democrats score poorly on how they are handling the economy—not least because they are governing during a period of pandemic-triggered high inflation—in actual fact, millions of jobs are being created and the economy is growing at a near-record pace. But to get the public on board again, they need to be able to tout specific, and ambitious, legislative and administrative accomplishments that are currently eluding them.
Back in California, Larry Elder framed his retreat from the electoral arena as being almost altruistic: He wanted, he said, to set up a political action committee instead, so that he could focus his resources on helping other GOP candidates in the state get elected.
That is, of course, misleading at the very least. If Elder thought he had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the gubernatorial race in November, he’d join the race in a heartbeat. But he knows that he doesn’t. It’s not that Newsom is doing everything right—on housing and homelessness, for example, the state remains in crisis mode—but he is doing enough right, on enough big-picture issues, that voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
With the mid-terms only 10 months away, the Democrats nationally are in a hole. If Manchin has his way, they will spend the next several months thinking in ever-smaller increments, ditching their bold plans, whittling away at their 2020 election promises, and embracing a GOP-lite vision of the social compact. It’s the wrong way to go. Voters aren’t punishing Democrats for thinking big—the major promises of the Build Back Better plan, from child benefits to increased health care access and environmental investments are massively popular—but because they’re not sealing the deal and getting the job done; voters don’t like the sausage-making spectacle, and don’t like the aura of incompetence surrounding the intraparty negotiations.
The Republicans are doing everything they can to keep the Democrats fighting among themselves. McConnell and McCarthy aren’t against Build Back Better because they think it’s bad economically; to the contrary, they’re against Build Back Better because they know that if it ever passes, or if significant elements of it ever pass, the reforms will deliver enough benefits to enough people to significantly reshape American society. If that happens, Biden’s popularity—and by extension that of congressional Democrats—could rebound in much the same way that Gavin Newsom’s has done in California.