Out of a misplaced desperation about a Green Party candidate becoming the mayor of San Francisco, the national Democratic Party leadership is apparently ready to pull out all the stops to defeat Matt Gonzalez in the Dec. 9 mayoral runoff against Gavin Newsom.
Many of us read with astonishment that even former Vice President Al Gore is coming to town today to insert himself into a race he knows nothing about, no doubt reflecting a generalized anxiety by the party's leadership that its base in California is being decisively weakened: first, by Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory over Gov. Gray Davis; and now, by Gonzalez's challenge to Newsom as the Democratic establishment's heir-apparent to Willie Brown. The Democrats still believe that but for Green candidate Ralph Nader, Gore would be president, and that a Gonzalez victory here will only further weaken the party's base.
As has so often been the case over the last 30 years, the Democrats have got it all wrong -- in fact, exactly backward. The reality is that the Greens have not been a threat to the Democrats, but have rather been their lifeline, re-energizing the progressive base that the Democrats have continued to mistakenly abandon in order to appeal -- or, to be more blunt, to pander -- to a nonexistent "mainstream" they wrongly imagine sits to their right.
Before Nader entered the race, Gore was headed for a landslide loss to George W. Bush, running a campaign that was so bland that I defy you, dear reader, to remember one thing that Gore stood for. Only Nader's entry stirred up enough hope in the progressive core of the majority of the population to get people to come out and vote in such large numbers between 5 and 8 p.m. on election night, some for Nader but many, many more for Gore as the projected incarnation of the Democrats' progressive heritage.
It was Nader who stirred voters to remember the progressive values at the core of the Democratic Party, precisely by criticizing the party from its left and with a Green hat on. Sometimes the emperor has to be told he's wearing no clothes in order to remember to get dressed. If Gore had grasped that it was Nader and the force of the progressive spirit that had released the genie that generated Gore's 600,000 majority in the popular vote, he could have mobilized that spirit nationwide to then win the battle for Florida, instead of handing it to Bush on a silver platter.
In a variation on the same theme, Schwarzenegger defeated the candidates in the gubernatorial election not because a majority of Californians didn't support the Democratic Party, but because Gov. Gray Davis didn't stand for anything strongly enough to mobilize the party's progressive constituencies to save him from being recalled.
Exactly the same dynamics are at play in the mayoral election. Hauling in the national party leadership to back Newsom repeats the same mistake in another context: The mistake of circling the wagons around a candidate who won't stand for a passionate progressive agenda but who will try to appeal to everyone by standing for nothing -- nothing, that is, except values that the Republicans stand for in a more compelling and authentic fashion.
This isn't to say that Gavin Newsom isn't a fundamentally decent person who cares about Democratic Party values. But he doesn't care enough about them so that we can feel "Now here's somebody who stands for a humane, egalitarian and democratic world committed to social, economic and environmental justice."
What the Democrats really need on Dec. 9 is not a circling-the-wagons status quo victory for Newsom but an insurgent victory for Gonzalez. That is the result that will give life to the progressive majority, not only in San Francisco but across the country as a whole. That is also the result that will be most likely help inspire a Democratic victory over George W. Bush next November.
It doesn't matter that Matt Gonzalez is a Green instead of a Democrat. What matters is that a Gonzalez victory will help to liberate the progressive life-force that is indispensable to the re-emergence of the Democratic Party from its hopeless position as the party that no longer has the confidence to stand up for what it believes.
Peter Gabel is president emeritus of New College of California and director of New College's Institute for Spirituality and Politics.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle