Gavin Newsom’s uncanny resemblance to Michael Dukakis
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently visited Washington, saying he wanted to showcase “California’s vital national and global role.” He also bought TV time in Texas and Florida to attack those states’ Republican governors. These are things that a would-be presidential candidate would do. Newsom has denied any interest in the White House, which is also what a would-be candidate would do.
Getting the 2024 nomination would be tough, but a general election would be tougher. Consider the fall of a rising star from yesteryear.
Pundits remember Michael Dukakis as a hapless loser, but he looked different before the autumn of 1988. Two years earlier, he had won a landslide reelection as governor of Massachusetts. The media portrayed him as a tech-friendly problem solver who pursued progressive goals while balancing state budgets.
Newsom is in a comparable situation. He beat a recall attempt last year and is almost certain to bury his little-known GOP challenger this fall. Revenues are pouring into state coffers because the wealthiest Californians are prospering — and they carry about half the income tax load. The resulting budget surplus has enabled Newsom to increase spending for the social safety net.
So far, so good for Newsom.
But he has to ask himself: Why did Dukakis lose to George H.W. Bush?
Economic growth and the waning of the Cold War boosted Bush. More relevant to Newsom is that Dukakis suffered from “Blue Bubble Syndrome.” He had spent his entire political career in an overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic state, the only one to favor McGovern over Nixon in 1972. He was not particularly sensitive to the interests and concerns of voters outside of his comfort zone.
Like Dukakis, Newsom has never faced a real threat from a conservative Republican opponent. He won his first elections in GOP-free San Francisco and then attained statewide office after the Republican Party had shriveled to irrelevance in California state politics. In the 2021 recall campaign, a far-right candidate on the replacement ballot actually helped Newsom by motivating Democratic turnout.
In 1988, the GOP caught Dukakis off guard with attacks on his state’s prison furlough program. His response would have gained high marks at Harvard Law School but fell flat with crime-weary voters in swing states; 34 years later crime and disorder have returned as top issues. Californians are all too familiar with needle-strewn streets and “smash and grab” robberies. The issue would be potent in a presidential race: Concern about crime and violence is at the highest level in years.
Bush also surprised Dukakis by latching onto an issue where Democrats assumed they had the advantage: the environment. Dukakis had failed to clean up Boston Harbor, enabling the Bush campaign to run a spot featuring its disgusting pollution.
Republicans could do something similar to Newsom. Democrats regard poverty and homelessness as “their” issues. But after taking account of living costs, the Census Bureau has found that California has the highest poverty rate of the 50 states. The most visible sign of this tragedy is rampant homelessness. The GOP attack ad practically writes itself: grainy, slow-motion footage of wretched encampments, with a voiceover reciting poverty statistics and ending with: “Now, Gavin Newsom says he wants to do for America what he’s done for California.”
Scholar Garry Wills called Dukakis “the first truly secular candidate we have ever had for the presidency.” The Constitution forbids religious tests for office, but he learned that American politicians disregard faith at their peril. Dukakis called himself a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” perhaps not stopping to think that the organization was anathema to many religious voters.
Newsom, like Dukakis, has a secular public persona, which is fine in the not-especially-pious state of California, but that persona might not connect with voters in places such as Georgia and North Carolina, which are potentially in play for Democrats. He should expect Republicans to flay him for his losing legal battle to impose pandemic restrictions on indoor church services.
The last four Democrats to win the presidency — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden — all found ways of reaching outside the Blue Bubble, and each invoked his religious faith in a way that was not exclusionary.
If Newsom runs for president, he should ask these former presidents what they did right. He should also ask Michael Dukakis about what went wrong.
John J. Pitney, Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “After Reagan: Bush, Dukakis, and the 1988 Election.”