The national Democrats may finally have found their champion in the culture wars: California Gov. Gavin Newsom. His recently announced appearances in Southern red states, the “Campaign for Democracy” mark a significant tactical turn for Democrats, whose hesitancy to engage on cultural issues has frustrated the governor.
Newsom’s new tactical offensive — most recently an appearance last week in Sarasota, Fla., to highlight conservative efforts to limit education — marks the end of the “When they go low, we go high” brand of politics popularized by former First Lady Michelle Obama during the early days of the Trump era. Democrats believed that the vulgarization of the public square was beneath them, and that mindset was a losing tactic. The political reality is that the high-minded ideal doesn’t work if you allow your opposition to choose the battleground.
Newsom has chosen to launch his national strategy by touring the Deep South and highlighting the progressive case for voting access, antidiscrimination laws, LGBTQ rights and academic freedom — all currently under assault by the modern Republican Party.
This is a profoundly different approach for Democrats in the modern era of presidential campaigns, which was defined nearly three decades ago by a young southern governor named Bill Clinton. He adopted the informal campaign theme “It’s the economy, stupid” to emphasize the New Democrats’ goal of “focusing like a laser beam” on economic issues in the post-Cold War era. Clinton, under the banner of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, pushed his party to focus on economic issues, not social issues, as it fought to win voters in the mainstream and get Democrats back in the habit of winning presidential elections.
Newsom is the right man at the right time to successfully employ this strategy. His famous move in 2004 — allowing same-sex marriages when he was mayor of San Francisco, while proclaiming that social change was coming “whether you like it or not” — made a lot of Democrats uncomfortable at the time, but also set his party on course to embracing rapidly changing social norms as a winning national strategy.
Newsom’s unapologetic embrace of such broadly popular social issues as same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana and the nation’s most progressive positions on gun control and reproductive rights gives the country’s largest blue state governor the bully pulpit to drive Democrats in a new direction.
While Biden is wisely focused on inflation and the war in Ukraine, Newsom has picked up the issues that animate the necessary coalitions to win elections. Lamenting the lack of a fight just weeks prior to the 2022 midterm election, Newsom quipped “Where’s my party?” believing that by leaning into cultural issues, congressional Democrats had a better chance at fending off GOP attacks.
Newsom has good reason to believe this. The college-education divide is perhaps the single most significant dividing line in American politics. Those who have college diplomas are moving rapidly toward Democrats, and those without are moving just as rapidly toward Republicans. It is precisely these voters who are rejecting the social, cultural and race-based extremism of the GOP that cost Republicans in the 2018 midterms, got Joe Biden elected president in 2020, and helped Democrats mitigate a massive red wave in the 2022 midterm elections. The tenuous relationship that college-educated Republican voters have had with Trump’s Republican Party has cost the GOP dearly in recent elections, and Newsom is betting there’s more mileage to be had.
As a motivating issue, the economy is no longer moving key segments of voters as it once did. Republicans have chosen a path forsaking policy ideas about how to help workers in the post-industrial age and are focusing exclusively on opposing a changing America. That leaves both parties defaulting to culture wars.
For decades, Republicans have looked to Democratic cultural excess for success at the ballot box, but considerable demographic, social and technological change has transformed the traditional terms of political engagement. Simply put, American culture today is not what it was 30 years ago.
Unfortunately, Newsom’s pushing his party headlong into the culture wars means Democrats will give even shorter shrift to their economic message, a drift that has seen them lose a growing number of Latino and Black voters. The likelihood of this strategy pushing Democrats further away from developing the aspirational working-class message they need to win over blue-collar workers is considerable. But for the moment, the framing of Newsom’s effort as the “Campaign for Democracy” is as accurate as it is urgent.
The reticence of most Democrats to engage in this aggressive style of politicsneeds to be set aside. Newsom is showing a new generation of Democrats they can win the culture wars if they can muster the fortitude to play the hardball offense they are so accustomed to losing to.
Mike Madrid is a Republican political consultant and co-founder of The Lincoln Project.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.