California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California on May 2, 2023. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

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What does California Gov. Gavin Newsom actually stand for? He leads the state with the largest economy in the US, and one of the largest in the world. Back when he was mayor of San Francisco, he ordered the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of state law and more than a decade before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. During the Trump era, he grabbed headlines as a liberal counterweight to the former president, a telegenic and bright young man on the rise. And now, he’s grabbing headlines again by vetoing more than 100 bills passed by the California legislature.

Jill Filipovic

It’s hard to know what exactly Newsom is playing at. But one thing seems clear: He’s a man who puts his own political future ahead of the will of the people. And right now, he seems to think it’s politically beneficial to maintain the status quo, regardless of what many Californians actually want.

Newsom vetoed many bills that are either common sense, wildly popular or both. One would have made insulin more affordable, capping prices at $35 for a 30-day supply. Another would have put free condoms in public high schools, and banned retailers from refusing to sell young people condoms. Another would have outlawed caste discrimination, which many South Asians say is troublingly common in the workplace. He also vetoed several drug-related bills, including one that would have allowed cannabis cafes and another that would have decriminalized the possession and personal use of hallucinogenics.

While a lot of these bills may not fly in the deep South, they’re unremarkable in progressive California, and were on Newsom’s desk in the first place because the state legislature put them there — ostensibly carrying out the will of California voters.

It’s tough to explain the veto spree, unless Newsom is thinking as much about voters outside of California as within it.

Not all of the bills on Newsom’s desk were vetoed. He signed one to ban four common but potentially harmful chemicals in food, and others to require businesses disclose their carbon emissions and school buses go electric by 2035. Several environmental protection bills came across his desk, and he put his signature on many of them.

But he vetoed others. And generally, Newsom used his pen to keep change from happening.

Why? He largely says money: California can’t afford a bunch of new or expanded services, and some of the bills, he claims, will actually create more downstream costs for consumers. Newsom said prohibiting caste discrimination was “unnecessary” because “California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed.” On vetoing cannabis cafes, Newsom expressed concern that “this bill could undermine California’s long-standing smoke-free workplace protections.”

Not all of Newsom’s vetoes here are bad ones. But their volume paints a picture of a man who is taking great care not to rock the boat, and not to have any unpopular legislation tied back to him — which certainly suggests national ambitions.

Newsom is far from the first person to politically shapeshift or put attention-seeking over job-doing.  And he was never a far-left progressive. But the kind of moral courage on display when he stood up for same-sex couples well before doing so was politically palatable has been conspicuously absent in recent years.

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None of us can read Newsom’s mind. Maybe he really doesn’t have national ambitions, and is making these veto decisions based on what he believes is best for California, not based on what’s best for his own political future. But this playbook — liberal governor of a liberal state moves toward the middle in an effort to appeal to voters nationwide — isn’t exactly novel.

It is disappointing, though. And it’s unclear if it will actually work in today’s unpredictable political climate.

The days of young(ish) handsome men of privilege charming their way into political office by saying whatever it is they think voters want to hear seem to be waning. There are a great many moderate Democrats out there, and their votes do win elections — just look at President Joe Biden. But I imagine these voters also want a president with vision. At the very least, voters want to know who, exactly, they’re voting for. And with this spree of keep-things-the-same vetoes, Newsom doesn’t answer that question.