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Can Gavin Newsom be President?

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Presidential predictions are notoriously hard. They said Franklin Delano Roosevelt was finished politically after his 1920 defeat for Vice President and subsequent paralysis by polio. They said Harry Truman didn’t have a chance in 1948. They said Ronald Reagan couldn’t possibly be elected in 1980. They said Bill Clinton was a non-starter in 1996 because of all the scandals. They said Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly lose in 2016. For that matter, who could have foreseen that an unknown young Black politician from Illinois would rise so spectacularly so fast?

It’s against these scenarios that we have to interpret the recent round of political speculation that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chances for the presidency were sunk with Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate.

That Newsom has his eyes on the White House is taken for granted and has been for years. That hardly makes him unusual among his peers; most U.S. Governors and Senators, and quite a number of U.S. House members, entertain dreams of obtaining the ultimate political office. It would be odd if they didn’t have that burning ambition. Newsom, as Governor of the nation’s richest and most populous state, articulate and handsome in his own right, and with the tailwind of being the first to marry gay people giving him immense gravitas among progressives and all Americans who value fairness, clearly was poised to take off. That was undoubtedly why the Democratic National Committee gave him the coveted “Obama spot” to deliver an address to the convention on Thursday night. (As it turned out, Newsom was unable to deliver his prepared remarks due to the multiple wildfires across California that are devastating the state, but he did give a live cameo fresh from the firelines.)

Kamala Harris’s dramatic elevation undoubtedly had an effect on Newsom’s political future, but exactly what that is, is hard to determine. The San Francisco Chronicle, on Thursday, said that “his path to the presidency recently became more complicated” because “If Joe Biden is elected [which the polls suggest he will be]…Kamala Harris could be vice president or president for the next 16 years.” The Sacramento Bee—a far more Republican-leaning paper than the Chronicle—added that in addition to “Kamala’s rise…coronavirus failures thwart Gov. Newsom’s presidential dreams.” By “coronavirus failures,” they refer to the suggestion, immensely unfair in my opinion, that rising numbers of COVID-19 in California can somehow be laid at Newsom’s feet. It seems clear to me that our “second surge” is happening because vast numbers of people are choosing to defy Newsom’s mandates to wear masks and socially distance; that’s hardly the Governor’s fault.

At any rate, this notion that “Gavin is finished” is making the rounds in California. But how true is it? As I wrote at the beginning of this post, political prognostications are as hard as predicting what any particular stock will do on the market. The history of the American presidency is littered with erroneous conclusions and the most astonishing and unlikely occurrences. Abraham Lincoln was out of office and written off, a backwater country lawyer from the frontier when he ran for President and won. Jimmy Carter was a nearly-unknown former peanut farmer from rural Georgia running for the Democratic nomination against far better known opponents: Jerry Brown of California, Scoop Jackson of Washington, George Wallace of Alabama. But Carter won the hearts of the voters, and went on to become President. Serious contenders can pop up out of nowhere; Obama is the most obvious example.

Besides, vice-presidents have an awful track record of succeeding to the Presidency in modern times (unless, that is, the President under whom they serve is assassinated or dies in office). Just ask Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore. Even assuming Biden is elected, and chooses to serve just a single term, Kamala doesn’t have a lock on the presidency or even on the nomination. There are too many imponderables in the political calculus to make that kind of determination so many years in advance. She might do well as V.P.; she might do poorly; she might get caught up in circumstances beyond her control.

So I would argue that predictions of the end of Gavin Newsom’s political career are premature. He’s still a relatively young person. He’s vibrant, articulate and likeable, and his wonkiness might be just what voters are looking for in the future, when they tire of personalities and begin yearning for really smart people who know how to tackle the country’s problems. He’s got a beautiful family and he looks good in bluejeans and a workshirt. Come 2024, his chances might not be quite as good as Kamala’s, on paper, but like I said, anything can happen between now and then. So if I have a message, it’s this: Don’t count Gavin out.

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