Editor's Notes

What the hell does The New York Times mean by "liberal?"
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Tredmond@sfbg.com

There was plenty in the long New York Times Magazine cover story profile of Gavin Newsom to induce the Technicolor yawn. But the sentence I found most offensive was buried after the jump, down at the bottom of a page of type: "While generally considered a liberal by people outside of San Francisco, Newsom has not shied from confronting the left with tough love."

Say, what?

Whenever you read something in the Almighty Times that uses terms like "generally considered," you need to stop and think. Considered by whom? And what the hell does the Times mean by "liberal?"

You can define that word any way you want — Wikipedia has a long history, and outlines the difference between the classical liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo (much of which we would now call libertarianism) and the social liberalism of the postwar era. I think any honest definition, though, rests in significant part on the notion that unregulated free markets are not always the best way to allocate resources, that government has a role in helping the needy, and, perhaps most important, that one of the primary functions of government is to reallocate income and resources to increase equality — that is, to tax the rich to feed the poor.

Liberalism got a bad name in the 1960s, particularly when it was used to apply to politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, who had the right ideas about using exceptionally high taxes on the very rich (the marginal rate in that era was more than 70 percent) to fund programs like the Great Society, but were utterly wrong about the Vietnam War and the use of U.S. military force abroad. And in the 1970s and 1980s, liberal politicians like Phil and John Burton in San Francisco became way too close to the real estate developers.

But words have to mean something, or the whole gig is over. And, as far as I'm concerned, a mayor who refuses to raise taxes to cover a huge budget deficit, and instead cuts wholesale from programs that help the poor, is not by any definition a "liberal."

He's not terribly good at "tough love," either.

The Times uses his implementation of Care Not Cash as an example — the program, the magazine says, "essentially ended direct payments to homeless people and put the money into service agencies instead." Not exactly true — Newsom ended direct payments to homeless people, but the "care" part of the package was never really there. And it's all gone in this latest budget. That's not tough love — it's just tough.

The idea that Mayor Newsom of San Francisco is a good liberal who is still willing to challenge the left every now and then is just mythology. Newsom (generally, to use the Times' favorite word here) has no relations whatsoever with the left. That fact might help him in the campaign — Californians as a whole are not as progressive as San Franciscans. But let's at least be honest about it.

And of course, the lavish story is another sign that the Newsom campaign is rolling ahead very nicely. "The fact that a national newspaper of the stature of the Times decides that Gavin Newsom is the story in the governor's race is certainly a plus," Eric Jaye, Newsom's chief political advisor, told me. I'd say that's a bit of an understatement. *