It may seem that the coronavirus crisis has been with us forever, but it’s been less than a month since California’s officialdom began imposing a quasi-quarantine to reduce the toll on human life.
It’s also been a few weeks since the Legislature recessed indefinitely and entrusted Gov. Gavin Newsom to do whatever he deemed necessary to protect the state’s 40 million residents.
So how has Newsom performed? After a couple of early miscues, he’s done extremely well, demonstrating a deft touch in persuading Californians to avoid personal contacts, even though it rapidly plunged the state into a deep economic recession.
Newson has, to use one of his favorite phrases, “met the moment” and it appears that Californians’ changes in personal behavior are, to use another Newsomism, “bending the curve” enough to sharply reduce the toll and avoid the terrible fate that’s befallen New York and other states.
Newsom has coupled defense with offense, tapping the state’s budget reserves to aggressively find protective shelter for the homeless, expand hospital capacity and acquire more sorely needed medical equipment — most recently an initiative to buy many millions of protective face masks.
Newsom Has Always Sought the Spotlight
“We decided enough is enough,” Newsom declared as he announced the latter. “Let’s use the power of the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state … and in the next few weeks, we’re going to see supplies at that level into the state of California — and potentially the opportunity to export some of those supplies to states in need.”
“Nation-state” is another of the Newsomisms to emerge, a constant reminder — even an implicit boast — that California is big enough to act where the federal government has failed.
Newsom has always sought the spotlight, trumpeting “big hairy, audacious goals” such as unilaterally implementing same-sex marriages as mayor of San Francisco and promising as governor to build 3.5 million new houses.
The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to act decisively on the biggest goal of all, saving thousands of lives, and Newsom has risen to the occasion with a tempered maturity, even throttling his penchant for attacking President Donald Trump to maintain a working relationship with the White House.
That said, it’s still been less than a month, California still has not seen the pandemic’s peak and even when its medical threat has receded, we will face the economic consequences for many months, even years. As tax revenues plummet and reserves melt away, the “big hairy, audacious goals” that Newsom had been seeking will take a back seat to crisis management.
There’s No Doubt Newsom Harbors Presidential Ambitions
From a purely political career standpoint, that’s not all bad, even though Newsom, of course, professes no political motivation. “This is not political, this is not in any way, shape or form usurping or undermining,” he said of his medical mask initiative. “This is all in the spirit of all of us stepping into this moment and doing what we can.”
However, Newsom didn’t reveal the action during one of his daily webcast briefings, but rather during a nationwide appearance on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” whose audience is overwhelmingly left-of-center Democrats. And he also garnered national media attention when he dispatched 500 ventilators to other hard-stricken states, such as New York.
Newsom’s Maddow appearance, coming one day before Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of presidential contention, had an immediate political effect as a #PresidentNewsom hashtag began trending on Twitter.
There’s no doubt Newsom harbors presidential ambitions. As well as he’s performed to date, however, he faces years of crisis that will decisively fix his place in California political history and thus determine how far he can go.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.