Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Paradox of Love: Why Some Campaign Promises Matter more than Others

There is a growing consensus that President Barack Obama needs something to show for two years of campaigning as candidate and nine months of talk as president. But in a speech at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) this weekend, he felt no need to defer to this consensus and offered no more than a rehash of his campaign promises in 2008. It is probably true that Obama has bigger problems to deal with than ending DOMA, but there is a more interesting explanation for his foot-dragging.

Obama does not need to court the LGBT community because, as a member of the audience exclaimed even before Obama began reciting his prepared remarks, "We love you, Barack!" Because love is forgiving, and it is blind, political love is often taken for granted. And Obama knows that he can play the prodigal son for as long as he needs, as long as he comes home on the eve of his re-election campaign, when he will be welcomed with a robe and a ring, and feted with a fatted calf and HRC shall chat, "he was lost, and is found." Thus, even though the president remained committed to the HRC's agenda, he made no effort to demonstrate that its agenda is high on his list of priorities. "My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians," he tepidly assured 3,000 guests at the black-tie event. The prodigal son need not tell Dad when he'll come home.

HRC cannot issue a credible threat that the LGBT community will throw their support behind a Republican candidate in 2012. Perhaps the bigger problem is that it does not even want to. In an email sent out to supporters of the HRC, Joe Solomonese gushed, "It was an historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the President of the United States. It's simply unprecedented." And so, like labor, African Americans, and environmentalists to the Democratic Party, the HRC is less powerful as a lobbying group than it could be because it has been too quick to profess its love and too loyal to consider a break-up. Liberals ask why the President seems bent on courting Republicans for their support on a health-care bill without realizing that the answer is staring at them right in their face: the President realizes that he does not need to court those who have already swooned.

This is the paradox of democratic politics. The undecided decide elections, and the loving are unbeloved. The more astute leaders of lobbying groups, like the AARP and the Independent Women's Forum, understand the value of (at least professed) independence. Even the National Rifle Association devotes a fifth of its campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. Size and efficiency of organization matters, but so is the ability to switch sides.

We extol the importance of debate and diversity of opinions between different demographic and issue groups in America, but we have scarcely understood the value of dissension within them. Michael Steele is a sell-out, and so are the Log Cabin Republicans, I hear liberals say; so too is Arlen Specter and Andrew Sullivan, conservatives opine. But in politics, unconditional love begets unrequited love, and groups seeking political influence in Washington should learn to play hard to get.

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