Bill Whalen

Does Gavin Newsom represent a shift in California Democratic Party?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to supporters at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco on June 6, the day after he finished first in the primary for governor.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to supporters at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco on June 6, the day after he finished first in the primary for governor. AP

As we face summer reruns on TV, is California’s gubernatorial race destined to be a playback of the first of Jerry Brown’s four triumphs 44 years ago?

 
Opinion

Think age lines: If elected in November to succeed Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom would enter office in January 29 years Brown’s junior. In 1975, Brown, at 36, was 27 years younger than Ronald Reagan.

Think plot lines: Brown saw his double-digit lead during the summer of 1974 shrink during the fall. He won by three percentage points, the closest governor’s race in California since 1920. And it was the lowest voter turnout in nearly three decades.

A race between Newsom and Republican John Cox could follow this narrative for much the same reason – voters aren’t quite comfortable with a youngish Democrat.

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In 1974, Brown was the product of Vietnam and Watergate. As anti-war activist Tom Hayden observed at the time, Brown ran as “a mystic with a vest, a philosopher who goes for the jugular, a Yale man courting the white ethnics.”

In 2018, Newsom is running during discord fueled by President Trump. But he’s not a mystic, and his campaign is directed at progressives, true-blue Democrats and unaffiliated voters who can’t stomach the president.

I’d pay good money to hear Brown and Newsom publicly discuss what their political ascents said then and now about their party’s fortunes.

Fourteen months after his inauguration, Brown was the subject of a profile on “60 Minutes” that was introduced with this: “Thoroughly confusing the American political scene this year are a number of men and women who defy the liberal and conservative labels – people who issue warnings rather than promises, who talk of America’s limits rather than its growth, who tell us to expect less from government rather than more.”

Brown was described as the embodiment of the “new politics of austerity,” while his father and former governor represented “the politics of abundance.”

As for Newsom, no Democrat who entered the general election as a frontrunner has been this overtly progressive, proposing to expand government programs for health care, housing and more.

But does he represent a shift in where the Democratic Party stands, and would a Newsom governorship set him apart from the rest of a Democratic chorus that wants single-payer health care implemented and Trump impeached?

In 1974, Californians crossed generation lines and elected a Democratic governor who was a new-generation brand ambassador and channeled an anti-officialdom zeitgeist. If there’s a blue wave coming in 2018, let’s see if Newsom has the same board skills.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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