Opinion: Does Gavin Newsom’s serial bold move strategy qualify him for a presidential run?

What to make of the governor’s assault weapons ban political jujitsu

San Franciscans aren’t surprised when Gavin Newsom makes national news with a bold political initiative. That’s kind of his brand.

In 2004, he was barely a month into his first term as mayor of San Francisco when he announced he was going to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The move was called “political suicide” by political pundits, even some in his own party.

“People felt like this could really do him harm,” Joyce Newstat, who was then Newsom’s policy director, told the Los Angeles Times. “It would destroy his political career.”

Nope. The story hit the news wires like a thunderclap. Newsom was suddenly a national figure. Granted, actual legalization of same-sex marriage took years to enact, but Newsom is still remembered for being the first voice.

He did it again in 2016 when, as lieutenant governor, he was the only statewide official to support the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, legalizing pot. Again, not such a controversial stance now, but pretty bold at the time.

And now he’s done it again. If you’ve tuned in to any of the 24-hour news shows, you’ve probably heard Newsom is proposing some political jujitsu, attempting to turn Texas’ draconian abortion law — allowing ordinary citizens to turn in abortion providers or abetters — on its head to apply to assault rifles.

The idea is that anyone could report anyone else for violating California’s assault weapon ban.

Now we have everyone weighing in across the country. Fox News is predictably having a hissy fit. Legal experts are opining from all over the country.

And once again, it is Newsom in the spotlight.

Now, let’s say something right off the bat. This assault weapon proposal is the definition of “symbolic.” As Politico says, you don’t just announce these things.

The proposal would have to be passed by the California legislature, which isn’t even in session now. And once they get back to Sacramento, bills take as much as eight months to pass. Who knows what legal arguments and changes might happen by then?

However, it should be said, when Newsom takes these stands and steps onto the national stage, there’s been one constant.

He hasn’t been wrong.

As the L.A. Times noted, same-sex marriage was once controversial. Fourteen years later, it was part of a campaign ad for Newsom’s successful run for governor.

It is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that Newsom is a guy with bold, fresh ideas. (Granted, the downside is when he goes into eye-glazing detail about them.)

This happens to come at a time when Democrats are actively looking for someone to stand up and take on the increasingly shrill Republican far right.

Democratic strategist James Carville went on a ragin’ Cajun rant last week, imploring Democrats to publicly challenge Republican trolls.

Some of them, like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, are just kooks. But others, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, are clearly taking extreme positions to court the far-right Republican base.

Abbott’s abortion bill is designed to outrage Democrats. And DeSantis just sent out a fundraising email, which advocated putting Anthony Fauci in jail.

But who is standing up for the other side? It’s a pretty thin roster, mostly consisting of geriatric longtime politicians who don’t excite anyone.

It is hard to think Newsom is not asking himself that question every career politician confronts at some point in his career: Why not me?

He’s definitely staying in the national spotlight. And if the Big Three Republican presidential candidates are DeSantis, Abbott and ex-president Donald Trump, Newsom has checked every box.

His recall election pitch in September was all about Trump. He painted his opponents, particularly talk show host Larry Elder, as Trump-wannabes.

The result? He won in a landslide, with over 60% supporting him. As some pundits suggested at the time, the recall actually turned out to be a good thing for Newsom — solidifying his support while also creating a positive story for national media.

As for Abbott, the assault weapon proposal is pretty clearly designed to draw a clear distinction. You want to ban abortions? We want to ban assault guns.

But what really got me thinking about this was a surprise appearance last week on James Corden’s nationally broadcast “Late Late Show.” (BTW, if you aren’t watching Corden’s show, why not? Funny and original.)

Ostensibly, Newsom was on the trendy show to discuss his new children’s book, “Ben and Emma’s Big Hit,” which is based on Newsom’s struggles with dyslexia.

But after a quick look at the book cover and a little chat about dyslexia, Corden got right to the real point – politics. After a reference to the unsuccessful recall election — a burst of applause from the audience — Corden wanted Newsom to compare California and Florida’s COVID response.

“I really appreciate the question,” Newsom said.

I’ll bet he did.

As usual, the California governor arrived stuffed with facts.

Compared to California, Newsom said, since the beginning of the pandemic Florida has had “a 53% higher death rate … 33% higher case rate … and their economy is worse.”

“California compared to Florida,” he said, “it’s not even close.”

Newsom was particularly critical of DeSantis’s claims that Florida is leading the nation in COVID response, although media reports in his state are not supporting that.

“What we don’t have are surround sound (news) networks celebrating Florida,” Newsom said. “What they are promoting is dangerous.”

So presumably that’s a Fox News dig. And it should just about complete the political bingo card — shots at Trump, Abbott, DeSantis and Fox News.

That certainly sounds like someone who is thinking big — maybe White House big?

However, if that’s true, Newsom still needs to get the attention of the pointy-headed East Coast media. It doesn’t seem like he’s there yet, despite the national splashes.

This week CNN posted a story of the “11 Democrats who could replace Joe Biden.” Newsom didn’t make the cut.

And he may not. Maybe he’s not seen as presidential timber.

But speaking as a San Franciscan with Newsom experience, here’s some advice:

Watch this space.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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