Walters: Bad Optics Can Sink Political Careers
In real life politics, as opposed to the textbook variety, hard fact is much less important than image or, as political pros put it, “optics.”
We had a stark lesson in that axiom this year when Donald Trump talked himself out of a second term as president. For months he dismissed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as infection rates, deaths and the public’s fears zoomed upward.
Ultimately, he was viewed as not only uncaring but unwilling to offer leadership in an existential crisis, and lost to Joe Biden, one of the most lackluster presidential candidates in American history.
We have another example of optical failure in California’s recent past — the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
Shortly after being re-elected in 2002, Davis confronted two simultaneous crises, a hole in the state budget stemming from a mild recession and a near-collapse of California’s electrical power system.
Although Davis was not responsible for the emergence of either crisis, he was perceived as having mishandled them and paid the ultimate political price.
Gavin Newsom is now mid-way through his first term as governor and he, too, is facing twin crises, the pandemic that undid Trump and a severe recession resulting from his orders to shut down much of the state’s consumer economy to battle COVID-19.
An Obvious One Is Newsom’s Tone Deaf Attendance
The jury on Newsom’s handling of both is still out, but they could be politically overshadowed by the bad optics of ancillary aspects.
An obvious one is Newsom’s tone deaf attendance at a gathering of political operatives at a very expensive restaurant in Napa as he was beseeching 40 million other Californians to avoid such gatherings because of COVID-19.
When an account of the birthday party was published later, Newsom belatedly recognized that it pictured him a hypocrite and issued profuse public apologies. However, mea culpas do not automatically repair the damage.
Meanwhile, Newsom faces seemingly endless managerial disasters, with the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department — two agencies that directly interact with ordinary Californians — in the starring roles.
The DMV has always been the state agency that Californians love to hate, but anger reached the white hot stage when those with business had to endure hours-long waits.
Eventually, things returned to a more normal state of frustration, but just as DMV’s woes faded from the public consciousness, EDD entered it.
EDD Is Now Seen as a Department Incompetently Handling Legitimate Claims
EDD was tasked with distributing the emergency pandemic unemployment aid but muffed it spectacularly, generating hatred among millions of suddenly jobless Californians who depended on the payments to feed and house themselves and their families.
Phone calls went unanswered and unprocessed claims for benefits piled up and at one point, Newsom suspended new applications to let EDD concentrate on its shameful backlog of claims.
However, new problems emerged. The state auditor, Elaine Howle, sharply criticized EDD for continuing to print Social Security numbers on documents sent to claimants, seeing it as an avenue to identity theft. Just last week, it was revealed that inmates in state prisons and local jails had fraudulently and successfully claimed as much as a billion dollars in benefits from EDD.
EDD is now seen as a department incompetently handling legitimate claims for vital benefits while incompetently paying those benefits to prisoners who use obviously phony, even comical, names and Social Security numbers they simply make up, including 123-45-6789.
Newsom’s gubernatorial career won’t be undone by an ideological revolution in blue California, but it could be short-circuited by bad optics — a perception that he’s out of touch and incapable of managing even routine governmental business.
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.