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Blaming Newsom

Nov
4
2004

Did San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom sink Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry?
A few readers seem to think so.
“I nominate Newsom as the new Democratic goat of 2004,” writes Mike Duffy. He had more to say:
That gay marriage stunt that Gavin Newsome pulled last year mobilized the Christian evangelicals to vote family values in Ohio. The “defend traditional marriage” initiative in Ohio (Proposition 1) was the single biggest reason that conservative Ohioans came out to vote. It even scored higher than terror. Kerry ought to give Newsome his thoughts on the matter.
Regular reader Dave Zinman, a moderately Liberal Democrat here in San Francisco, wasn’t quite that caustic.


Who’s responsible for Kerry’s loss? Well, it’s clear that the evangelical vote turned out strongly for Bush, matching and in some ways exceeding the Democrat’s distributed [get out the vote] GOTV machine. Who’s responsible for that? Which individual is most responsible for energizing that critical base of voters?
Gavin Newsom. That’s right. By taking a bold and gutsy step forward in a legitimate civil rights issue, he accidentally ignited the passions on the right. As a result, [Republican political strategist Karl] Rove’s Republicans saw an opportunity and put gay marriage on the ballot in several battleground states, including Ohio. It passed in all 11 states where it appeared. Thanks, Gavin.

I’m not so sure about this. The gay marriage story was brewing in Massachusetts six months before Newsom said San Francisco should marry same sex couples. And I’m equally not so sure about the need to blame a specific someone for Kerry’s loss. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Newsom is standing in for the gay rights movement. Democrats can criticize him rather than the gay folks. It’s a convenience.
Look, John Kerry was a bad candidate and every Democrat who knows anything about politics knew it. But he worked hard so folks held their noses. But until the Clinton folks took over – in early September, just in time for the debates – he ran a horrible campaign. Among its biggest mistakes: clothing Kerry in the colors of his Vietnam patriotism and completely forgetting to address the controversy he stirred up when he led Vietnam Vets Against the War. That created the opening for the Swift Boat Veterans. Kerry did something similar on gay marriage. He supported civil unions for same sex couples but made the mistake – in the eyes of many people who don’t think it’s proper to discuss sex at the dinner table – of talking about Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sex life during the debate. For many, many straight people, talking about someone’s sexual orientation is the same as talking about their sex life and they think it’s icky. So, no Kerry did himself in, in no small measure by over-thinking his campaign strategy.
It’s convenient to blame Newsom; it’s the first step in the battlefield that will be the Democratic Party for the next four or so years. Right now, it’s a conversation about strategy and tactics, the inside baseball of politics. But this really shouldn’t be about tactics. It should be about something else. It’s about leadership. Democrats need to stop thinking about how to win votes from people who don’t share their agenda –which isn’t much different from thinking of ways to con people into supporting you — and think more about coming up with an agenda that people can share.
UPDATE: Newsom didn’t mince words when he was asked about this.
“Maybe the Democrats should never have supported the civil rights in the 60′s – that’s why we lost the south,” Newsom told KQED’s Michael Krasney Thursday morning. “It’s never the right time” he said.
“Maybe Kerry lost because Gov. Schwarzenegger went to Ohio,” to campaign for Bush. “Maybe Kerry lost because he didn’t have a positive alternative agenda.”
And then Newsome started to talk about moral values and doing what he thought was right when it came to supporting same-sex couple’s right to marriage. Now, I listened carefully during the campaign but I didn’t hear John Kerry sound nearly as sincere or nearly as comfortable as Newsom did this morning on the radio. Newsom can make a case for why he can defend same-sex marriage; it’s empathetic and smart and, sometimes, when he gets going, outraged. Listen to the tone, the style, and the substance. It may be the sound of real leadership on a tough issue.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:55 AM | Permalink

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