Gavin Newsom is perfecting the art of inflating his presidential prospects by denying them

Patrick Semansky/AP

In the spring of 2019, when Joe Biden was just a battle-scarred former vice president, Barack Obama greeted his newly announced presidential campaign by praising his own selection of Biden as “one of the best decisions he ever made.” But he stopped conspicuously short of endorsing his old running mate.

Biden quickly offered a credulity-straining explanation of the omission. Because he believed the eventual Democratic nominee should “win on their own merits,” he told reporters, “I asked President Obama not to endorse.”

If you believe Biden did not want the nation’s most prominent and popular Democrat to instantly elevate him above a knives-out crowd of rivals for the Democratic nomination, you might also believe California Gov. Gavin Newsom is not angling for the job that Biden, Obama’s reticence notwithstanding, now has. Newsom is doing so partly by making a spectacle of insisting, as Biden did three years ago, that he does not want what he clearly does.

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The paradoxical and perhaps intended effect of this protesting too much is to inflate Newsom’s stature while appearing to deprecate it. Biden’s story positioned him not as a potentially washed-up pol being abandoned to the primary free-for-all by his old boss; rather, he was a trusted confidante urging a former president to desist from publicly supporting him on principle. Likewise, Newsom’s objections suggest that he is not just a final-term governor beset by intractable challenges and languishing near the bottom of any list of likely presidential prospects; instead, he’s a top contender resisting endless entreaties to reveal the details of an inevitable White House run.

A surefire way to get a lot of questions about one’s national aspirations is to constantly raise those questions oneself. Newsom has been doing this since he ran for governor as the self-appointed leader of a “California resistance” that would “repudiate Donald Trump and Trumpism” while insisting that he had “honestly no interest” in replacing that repudiated president.

Several symbiotic Twitter fights with the White House later, Newsom was facing a recall and Trump had been ousted by Biden. The governor managed to prosecute that campaign in the same national terms, casting conservative radio host and replacement candidate Larry Elder as a stand-in for the ex-president. It was a “Republican recall,” Newsom said, backed by “mega Trump donors.”

As soon as the governor emerged victorious from that idiosyncratically Californian campaign, his advisers suggested he had somehow shown the way for Democrats to win a national election. Newsom warned in his victory speech that while “we” had defeated Trump, the forces of “Trumpism” had yet to be vanquished.

With his path to a second term clear, Newsom grew only more overtly preoccupied with nationally prominent issues and politicians. He ran television ads in Florida that aimed for the country’s second most likely Republican contender for president, Gov. Ron DeSantis, while spotlighting his own support for abortion rights, which face no serious threat in California. And in case the nature of his interest wasn’t clear enough from all that, he did it on the Fourth of July.

Newsom had plenty of provocative and gratuitous criticism of his fellow Democrats, too. “Where the hell is my party?” he demanded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. He put a finer point on it in a September MSNBC interview, laying the Demcocrats’ insufficient vigor at the president’s allegedly dragging feet. “I mean, he’s hard-wired for a different world,” the governor said of Biden, and “that world is gone.”

Among those who didn’t dismiss this as a bit of friendly advice was Biden himself. The president returned fire more than once by getting ahead of Newsom as he dithered over a farmworker rights bill and hesitated to call on racist Los Angeles City Council members to resign.

A few journalists could therefore be forgiven for wondering what exactly Newsom was up to. The governor was ready for them: He didn’t just have “no interest” in the White House, he told the San Francisco Chronicle last spring; he had “subzero interest.” And in September, while taking a moment to thank McClatchy’s California editorial board’s for flattering him with the same question, he reiterated that he had “no desire whatsoever to be in the conversation” even if he had to say so “in 26 different languages.”

Or at least to 26 different reporters: On the eve of the midterm election, Newsom went national with his non-intentions, telling CBS News that the (ultimately illusory) “red wave” was a result of his “damn party” spending too much time on “damn defense.” But, damn it, he still had “no interest” in the presidency, especially given Biden’s excellent performance “under the circumstance.”

And just to make sure everyone understood, he spent election night with a reporter for Politico, a publication chiefly concerned with such questions as who exactly is running for president, to reiterate his determination not to do so.

Witnessing Newsom’s herculean efforts to get an arguably simple point across, one might conclude that it’s impossible to categorically refute suspicions of presidential ambitions. In fact, it’s been a century and a half since the Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman coined the gold standard in such categorical denials, whence the term “Shermanesque statement.”

“I hereby state,” Sherman said in 1871, “and mean all that I say, that I never have been and never will be a candidate for president; that if nominated by either party I shall peremptorily decline; and even if unanimously elected I should decline to serve.” As later recalled by his son, Sherman went on to boil this ironclad denial down to a dozen words for a telegram to the 1884 Republican National Convention: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

The Newsomesque statement, then, is a near-antonym of the Shermanesque, a denial offered so repeatedly, insistently and expansively as to serve the opposite purpose.