Peter Schrag: California: The left-out coast, or the leading edge?

By Peter Schrag -- Sacramento Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, November 10, 2004

It would be an exaggeration to say that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom cost John Kerry the election. You don't have to read the dozens of post-mortems of the past week to know that defeat, like victory, has a thousand fathers.

Still, Newsom, the impresario last February of the nation's largest, most flamboyant and most photogenic round of gay weddings, didn't help. No one was struck dead by the pictures of 4,000 couples hugging and kissing on the City Hall steps, but it sure made for great political ammunition in the Bible Belt.

Maybe Ohio would have voted for President Bush even if the gay marriage ban on its ballot hadn't helped bring out a flood of new voters - a million more than four years ago. Maybe Karl Rove, the president's political guru - now more than ever deserving of the title "turd blossom" that Bush bestowed on him - would have managed to throw that fuzzy "values" mantle around his candidate even without the gay issue.

But it's hard to argue with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's conclusion that Newsom's action, defying a state law approved by voters barely four years before, "had been too much, too fast, too soon."

Newsom, trying to bolster his left flank in the months after his election, flatly ignored the advice of Rep. Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman, who was first elected to state office when Newsom was 5 years old and was fighting this battle long before Newsom knew anything about it.

Why not test the law before you violate it? Newsom's lawyers claim that the California law, adopted by the voters as Proposition 22 in 2000, violates the state constitution's protection of equal rights and is thus "an injustice that has no place in 21st century California." The city's suit challenging Proposition 22 is now making its way through the courts.

Newsom's act, along with a long list of other California things, reinforced the contention of a lot of political junkies, among them not a few Democrats, that the Bush victory and the creeping red on the electoral map showed that the blue states - California paramount among them - were simply out of it. We - coastal California, the Democrats, the left - had better figure out a way to reconnect.

The theme had been sounded before, most recently in April 2003 in the British magazine the Economist, where "Lexington," the Economist's American columnist, described California as "the left-out coast." Ever since 9/11, said Lexington, Californians have been out of the loop, "flummoxed by the war on terrorism." Its worries were "very much pre-Sept. 11 worries: the economy, schools and the budget deficit." California, Lexington continued, was still stuck in the time "when the U.S. armed forces were always bogged down in an unwinnable war and when the CIA and the FBI were always up to no good." Why there was even that crazy Sean Penn who, after a three-day visit there, concluded that Iraq "is completely free of weapons of mass destruction."

A day or two after Tuesday's returns were in, somebody circulated a map on the Web depicting the blue states of the West Coast, the Northeast and the upper Midwest as part of the "United States of Canada," the red states as an isolated theocracy.

It was good for an ironic laugh on the left, which desperately needed it. But there was also a smidgen of sardonic seriousness. Maybe we'd be better off as part of Canada, where the health system is better, where there's no crushing defense budget, where Californians would probably get back more than 77 cents of every $1 they sent to the national government and the feds wouldn't be arresting cancer and glaucoma patients for smoking the marijuana their doctors had recommended and that the voters sanctioned.

More realistically, if California's blueness in the culture wars distances it from much of the country, it also brings it much closer to the rest of the world and to its perception of reality: on Iraq and terrorism, which Europeans have been fighting much longer than we have; on drugs, on politicized religion, on stem cell research and the priorities given to science; on global warming, on energy conservation and environmental concerns generally.

At the same time it's also true, Newsom's ill-timed foray into gay marriage notwithstanding, that the nation's acceptance of gay rights has moved along much more quickly than anyone would have predicted a generation ago.

California passed its gay marriage ban four years before it became a big deal in Missouri and Mississippi, but it also recognizes civil unions. Are we ahead of the country or behind? California even found itself a moderate Republican, one of the last of a breed - or maybe the first of a new breed - to serve as its governor. Now if the state seceded, Arnold could be president of the world's sixth-largest economy, and he wouldn't even need a constitutional amendment to do it.