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WHAT WE THINK
Democrats search for scapegoats

November 12, 2004 | Page 3

IN THIS year's episode of the Democratic Party's "Post-Election Blame Game," Ralph Nader isn't the chief villain. He can't be. After a campaign filled with frantic slanders against him, Nader got fewer than 500,000 votes. John Kerry lost the popular vote by seven times that much.

Instead, the favorite target for abuse this year is an actual Democrat, but one comfortably removed from the national party leadership--San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom is being blamed for spurring a mass turnout by the religious right for George Bush--by announcing earlier this year that his city government would defy California law and grant marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.

"The thing that agitated people were the mass weddings," said openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)--sounding not unlike the homophobes who hate him. "It was a mistake in San Francisco, compounded by people in Oregon, New Mexico and New York. What it did was provoke a lot of fears."

So instead of complaining about the 3 million people who voted for Nader in 2000 out of hope for a real political alternative, the Blamocrats are scapegoating tens of thousands of gays and lesbians who had the gall to celebrate not being treated as second-class citizens for once.

Newsom is an ironic target for the party establishment, since he's one of their own. Running as the candidate of San Francisco's real estate barons, he needed the all-out support--and big bucks--he got from state and national Democrats to eke out an election victory last year over the grassroots campaign of the Green Party's Matt Gonzalez. If Newsom seems like a radical now, it's only because the Democrats have taken such a right-wing position on gay marriage--and because Newsom has calculated that his own political future depends on enlarging his base of supporters in San Francisco.

Bush's success in mobilizing his base did depend on a big turnout of right-wingers organized around the issue of gay marriage--especially in the 11 states where referendums to ban same-sex marriage were on the ballot. But reducing Kerry's defeat to this one issue--or this one segment of voters--is wrong.

Exit polls show that there was only a small increase in votes for Bush among religious conservatives compared to the 2000 election. The real secret to Bush's 3.5 million-vote victory was his gains across the board--including among traditional Democratic "base" constituencies like Latinos and women.

And the only serious explanation for these broad gains is that Kerry and the Democrats didn't present an alternative on issues that could have taken votes away from the Republicans--above all, the disastrous war in Iraq and the sputtering economy.

Throughout the campaign, Kerry presented himself as a better administrator of the same essential policies as Bush--and nothing more. So many people ended up casting a ballot for a president they disagree with, but who at least presented himself as decisive and principled, unlike his mealy-mouthed opponent.

Kerry's have-it-both-ways position on gay marriage--saying that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, but opposing a constitutional ban--was yet one more example of the Democrats' hypocritical double talk.

And rather than build an active opposition in the 11 states where referendums banning gay marriage were on the ballot, the Democrats kept their mouths shut--leaving the bigots entirely unchallenged. Incredibly, the "conventional wisdom" is that standing up for civil rights for gays and lesbians represents the main threat to civil rights.

What an outrage! Yet this is how Washington politics works. Mainstream politicians don't stand on principle if the polls are against them.

We need an alternative--one that cares about the justice of a political position and sets out to convince as many people as possible, not how to tailor ideas to the latest polls. That's how we'll stand up to the looming attack of the Bush gang--and rebuild a left that challenges the two-party status quo.

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