Why Kamala Harris struggles and her old buddy Gavin Newsom thrives

California governor benefits from an overwhelmingly blue state

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Monday 11 July 2022 15:33 BST
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On Sunday, CBS News’s Face the Nation featured an interview with Vice President Kamala Harris. It was hotly anticipated; so much so, in fact, that the Friday before, CBS aired a teaser clip showing a short preview of what was to come. In the clip, Robert Costa asked the vice president if the Democratic Party made a mistake when it failed to codify abortion protections in Roe v Wade.

“I do believe that we should have rightly believed but we certainly believe that certain issues are just settled,” she said. The unimpressive answer was a non-answer — and it shows the tightrope that the vice president walks.

Conversely, California Governor Gavin Newsom — a Democrat himself — has been one of the foremost critics of the national Democratic Party. When a draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which enshrined the right to seek an abortion, leaked, he said, “Where the hell is my party?” and has been at the forefront of his state’s push on abortion rights.

All of this has made Democrats speculate whether Newsom — who has always tried to get ahead of the national party since he performed same-sex marriages as mayor of San Francisco — will seek the White House. Meanwhile, Harris has been beleaguered by numerous negative headlines.

Harris and Newsom’s statuses in the Democratic Party are a rapid change in fortune. The two have known each other for years; in November 2020, Newsom faced outrage after he was caught at the French Laundry restaurant without a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic, which triggered a recall election. That same month, Harris became the first woman vice president.

But since then, Harris has faced numerous negative news stories and bad approval numbers. She, unlike Newsom, has often been considered a careful politician who doesn’t have the performative streak the governor does. But one pivotal move might have sealed their respective fates.

In 2015, Senator Barbara Boxer announced that she would not seek re-election while Jerry Brown began his fourth and final term as governor of California. Newsom at the time was lieutenant governor and Harris was attorney general. State insiders knew the two wouldn’t oppose each other. Instead, it was clear that one would pick one seat and the other would run for the other vacancy.

Ultimately, Newsom decided he wouldn’t run for Senate, which opened the seat up for Harris and allowed him to run for governor. That left the Senate seat for Harris, which led to her becoming vice president.

But by becoming Biden’s vice president, Harris has to own his successes and, more pertinently, his failures . Democrats in the Senate failed to pass legislation to codify Roe in May, and Harris presided over the Senate when it died with 49 votes. She then had to tell reporters the priority was “to elect pro-choice Democrats.”

Similarly, one of those former Democratic presidents and congressional leaders who failed to codify the protections in Roe v Wade is now her boss: President Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president when Obama said passing a law protecting abortion rights was “not the highest legislative priority.” This means that even if Harris believes that Democrats should have codified abortion protections, she can’t necessarily say that, lest she wind up calling her boss a failure.

Conversely, by not being tied to the national administration, Newsom can now portray himself as the leader of a blue oasis that does everything from protecting abortion rights to making its own insulin. His victory after a recall election gives him ammunition to say he can beat back Republicans, too, and he’s enjoyed poking Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the GOP’s golden boy.

Newsom benefits from leading an overwhelmingly Democratic state with a large majority in its state legislature, while Harris’s power is entirely tied to her relationship with the president. She is stuck with only a 50-50 Democratic Senate where she breaks ties. Nevertheless, Newsom’s tendency to muscle his way into Sacramento looks politically smarter by the day.

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