Gavin Newsom's Electric Kool Aid Recall Test

One of Gavin Newsom's biggest flaws - which, I suspect, will turn out to be key to this California recall vote - is that he has been, up to now, one of the more generically forgettable politicians of his time. Vaguely handsome, absolutely unmemorable, Newsom has casually coasted through success on the Left Coast by being less visibly flaky than Jerry Brown while catering to the needs of the deeply progressive base of California's Democrats... and somehow, leaving next to no trace of mostly being there at all.

Quick - quote me a memorable Newsom speech.

Newsom works best, as politicians do, by never being too risky, and it largely paid off. Even when he had to get tough during the pandemic, for much of it he was acting in the shadow of Andrew Cuomo and Jay Inslee - Inslee because Washington state got hit first, and Cuomo as New York got hit harder. Newsom probably Newsomneeded to respond sooner and more forcefully, but his failures on that score were subsumed by the ultimate scale of the pandemic, and more than most, he was able to have the kind of success you can only have when every level of government in the state largely falls in line and works for the same goals.

But one fancy dinner at French Laundry, and a restive population that has long equated their state with breezy openness, and Newsom looked a bit, well, cavalier. Decisions about reopening were bound to be complex, but Newsom embodied the "Do as I say, not as I do" hypocrisy that, frankly, has become a struggle for almost all of us who care about public health. When to unmask, when to go back to restaurants... our choices have been a confused mix of Listening to Science and Deciding to Do It Anyway.  It's worth noting, for instance, no one involved in the French Laundry episode got sick. But that just kind of underscores the "well, why do we have to isolate so much" aspect of all our conversations, these days.

Recalling Newsom took on a life of its own once national conservatives and Fox News decided Newsom was weak enough to be beatable... whether that ultimately pans out is still a tossup of sorts, but so far, that choice looks ham handed, at best. Newsom has run a generally low key, below the radar effort to lock down a no vote on recall (from choosing an obscure September date to do it to quietly enlisting the known liberal universe to stump for him). So far, that seems to be working: polls have "no" consistently beating "yes" on recall, and while turnout is as low as expected, it's not clear that Republicans in CA have overcome their built in disadvantages to get anywhere near where they would need to be to succeed.

Partly, that's because the California GOP remains in tatters: lack of statewide leadership, indeed, any clear leadership of any kind, has been the hallmark of this effort. Driven by faceless pressure group interests, the Recall zombie walked right up to its signature deadline not knowing if they'd hit it. Once they did, no one emerged as a real potential hopeful to replace Newsom. The largely hilarious failure of Caitlyn Jenner to work up more than a vanity driven, reality show style of a campaign hurt considerably. And at this point, the GOP hopes rest on Larry Elder, a fringe-y outsider with loads of bad baggage and no real sense of what it would take to govern the largest state.

Yes, the prospect of Elder should scare people... but that, too, just plays effectively to Newsom's shambling "oh no, I'm in danger" approach to the whole thing. Everyone's worried, democrats are terrified... and yet, Newsom still has spent much of this recall campaign largely low key, barely in public, trying less to draw attention than to avoid it. That's probably, from a political strategy standpoint, the smart play: Elder flails especially for lack of a true foil, and conservative news outlet struggle to give the whole recall enterprise a sense of real urgency. Still, as I said from the start, Newsom's generic blandness has been his secret weapon all along, as well as his Achilles' heel. He will likely survive a recall... but it's hardly the most inspiring effort anyone has ever seen... and that's partly why he struggles to be seen positively at all.

A smarter, saner Republican party - or a less crazy conservative movement, at least - would probably have seen the Recall for the fool's errand it's turning out to be. Newsom isn't a political superstar... but he's also no abject failure a la Grey Davis, either. And again, frankly, Republicans have no secret Arnold Schwarzeneggar this time to swallow up the celebrity oxygen, either. No, this is just another flaky, only-in-California moment that underscores both the fecklessness of the public and the confused panda notions of what passes for state government in the Golden State. Tightening the recall process, really facing up to the state's internal issues... these are probably the real lessons of what is, and isn't happening with this Recall, and why. But seeing that would require seeing past the electric circus mentality of national conservatives, flailing through the initial moments of post Trump existence with no real sense of who they are, what they want, or how even to start. Gavin Newsom, even in their equation, is a handsome, generic detail. One widely disseminated dinner party does not a revolution make.

And sure, there may be more recalls (though most states have much higher barriers to them) and more falderal from the far right now that desperation has long since taken over good sense. But failing to oust Newsom is, well, failure. If conservatives can't turn their fanciful, ginned up narratives into political success - and so far, it's not looking great on most fronts - that's just another proof that their marginalization is more real, and less scary than as has been over advertised since the failed "insurrection" of January sixth. The foolishness is not pointing out how absurd, wasteful and dangerous conservatism has become... but how we imbue it with more power than it actually has, more triple A batteries in a flashlight than full on electric klieg lights. And if you can't beat Gavin Newsom with a flashlight... just how badass are you, really?


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