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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Newsom shows you can be a great politician and a terrible leader

Updated July 29, 2021 - 9:00 pm

Even in his deep blue state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to be in deep trouble.

It’s not because the charismatic Democrat is facing a recall election on Sept. 14, where his name will appear on the ballot along with those of 45 other candidates. He is likely to survive that referendum.

The bigger worry for Democrats is that their former Golden Boy shouldn’t even be in this predicament in the first place. Newsom was elected just three years ago by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in a state so overwhelmingly Democratic that you forget there even is a state Republican Party.

Yet, his fate is a toss-up. According to a new poll by the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, 47 percent of likely California voters support recalling Newsom, compared with 50 percent who oppose removing him — a difference just short of the margin of error.

How did we get here? More importantly, how did he get here?

Here’s one answer: ambition. Newsom — who has been in politics since 1997, when he was a bright-eyed 29-year-old member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — always seems to have his eye fixed on the next gig when he should be focused on the task at hand.

Here’s another: lack of leadership. Some politicians inspire folks with their vision, and others keep the trains running on time. Newsom doesn’t do either.

Still, if there is one job that the former rising star in the Democratic Party is determined to save — in a state where the unemployment rate is 7.9 percent — it’s his own. Besides movie star looks and a knack for sounding great when saying nothing, Newsom has mad political skills.

Newsom has deftly branded the recall effort an attempt to subvert democracy by white nationalist supporters of former President Donald Trump — a group so small that it is practically an endangered species in this state.

Then Newsom started raising money like a maniac. According to the Los Angeles Times, in less than six months, the governor has raised about $9.3 million. A number of anti-recall committees sprang up and quickly raised another $23 million. That’s $32.3 million for the anti-recall folks, compared with just $16.8 million for the pro-recall side.

But, for California Republicans, the reason they’re so outmatched is not because they lack money but because they lack a moral core. They don’t have the foggiest idea who they are anymore.

For instance, many of them continue to drink the poison that nearly put their party in the grave in the first place: a racist, anti-Latino drumbeat warning that the state will someday become majority Latino.

So for Democrats, what’s the problem? The problem is that, in politics, it’s possible to win the battle and still lose the war. While Newsom will likely beat back this attempt to oust him, he is also — in the process — likely to show voters some of his less appealing qualities. He will make clear that he has failed as governor, and he is not up to the job. Already Newsom comes across as someone who deflects criticism, changes the subject and can’t own his mistakes. And the fact that he shut down restaurants during the pandemic lockdown and then dined at the exclusive Napa Valley eatery, The French Laundry, revealed him to be an out-of-touch elitist who is above the rules.

Now, COVID-19 infection rates are spiking in California just as they are around the country. And that bleak development is likely to remind the people in this state of Newsom’s single biggest failure. Republicans can never touch him, but the coronavirus crushed him. He was totally outmatched.

Winning elections is one thing, and it’s not difficult to do when your opponents are incompetent or inept. Winning over hearts and minds is quite another. Newsom has always been better at the former than he is at the latter.

For Democrats, that’s nothing to celebrate.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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