Monday, June 27, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage , State by State

New York has just become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, together with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, and the District of Columbia. New Jersey, Maryland, and Rhode Island have not legalized same-sex marriage, but they do recognize those performed in other states. State by State, the dominoes against same-sex marriage are falling away as surely as reason must conquer unreason. President Barack Obama has been accused of allowing a state governor, Mario Cuomo, to be the leader on this issue. But on this issue, Obama's hesitation and characteristic equivocation might turn out to be strategically, if unintentionally wise, because civil rights issues are most effectively advanced by state legislatures, not national institutions.

Consider the bitter-sweet record of the Civil Rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the lesser known Loving v. Virginia (1967), which legalized inter-racial marriage, were landmark Supreme Court decisions. But they created decades of backlash, most easily exemplified by the busing controversy as well as the "special rights" retort -- the argument that a too-ready conferral of alleged rights to identity groups creates an atomistic society and a government with more obligations than it can or ought to fulfill -- the lead argument against affirmative action policies today. In 1967, the year inter-racial marriage was made legal by "judicial activism," 72 percent of Americans were opposed to inter-racial marriage. It was not until 1991, 35 years later, that these Americans became a minority. Brown and Loving gave us the right decisions, but not necessary with the smartest strategy.

The history of the same-sex marriage movement in the mid-2000s exhibited the same one step forward, two step backwards tendency when it tried to follow in the strategic footsteps of the Civil Rights movement, by way of the Courts. In 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, that it was inconsistent with the State's constitution to limit marriage only to opposite-sex couples. Massachusetts became the first US state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; a triumphant first hurrah, but ultimately a harbinger of backlash, including a national movement to amend the US constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and the passage of amendments in 11 state constitutions to the same on election day. 2004 would be remembered as the year of anti-same-sex-marriage backlash, not the year when the movement for marriage equality started.

But something remarkable happened in the last few years, when the movement decided that the "special rights" retort was too powerful to overcome. The movement suspended its alliance with the Courts, and turned, as presidential candidates must, to a state-by-state strategy. In doing this, the movement drove a knife into the the heart of the anti-same-sex-marriage argument. The argument against "activist judges" -- a procedural argument that disguises the moral disgust -- cannot stand when state legislatures comprised of elected officials redefine the meaning of marriage. Just seven years after a national hysteria against "judicial activism, " conservative groups are now left with one of two choices, either come out (no pun intended) and articulate the real moral or religious reasons why they are against same-sex marriage, or lose the public battle because they can no longer adduce smoke-screen procedural reasons. Whereas it took 35 years before a national majority was found in favor of permitting inter-racial marriage, as Gallup reports, it has taken just 7 years (after Massachusetts' Goodridge decision) for same-sex marriage.

Impatience begets backlash in American politics, a lesson liberals find difficult to stomach even as they watch public support for "Obamacare" decline every day. But this nation was built state by state, in a laborious ratification process that for better or for worse, became the template of our majoritarian rule; a reminder that majorities can be built from the ground up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Politics of Pessimism

The election of 2012 will turn on the economy and jobs. But jobs or the lack thereof are only a component of a more pervasive sentiment in American politics today. That sentiment is pessimism, because Horatio Alger has become Joe the Plumber.

The pessimism in American politics is concentrated in one part of the electorate -- the white working class, also the group which has pulled most sharply from Obama's support. Understanding the disaffection of the shrinking white working class is key to understanding the politics of our time. Consider that as late as in 1940, 86 percent of adults over the age of 25 who did not have a 4-year college degree were white. In 2007, the demographic had shrunk to 48 percent. It is this group of Americans, who had recently just lost their majority status, who feel taxed and spent from the decades of liberal government in the interim. As the Economic Mobility Project poll found, while only 48% of Caucasians believe their economic circumstances will be better in ten years, substantial majorities of African Americans (68%), Hispanics (66%), and Asian Americans (64%) foresee improved personal finances down the road. Tea Partiers agitating to "take back" America, no less than "Birthers" challenging Obama's citizenship or Minute Men securing the border in Arizona, are registering a heart-felt disenchantment that they have been left behind in America's liberal march. This is why those competing for the Republican nomination who are also articulately expressing this declension narrative are resonating with the base. It is also why even though no one thinks that Ron Paul would win the nomination, the Doomsday Prophet has already won two straw polls, most recently at the Republican Leadership Conference this weekend in New Orleans; and why Mitt Romney's gaffe that he too, is "unemployed" will  come back to haunt the front-runner who looks more like the aristocratic poster child of the Republican party of 1920, not 2012.

2012, however, is not 1828; nor is it 1980 because while the white working class votes reliably for the conservative party, it is also not the majority any more – a very recent development which even Ronald Reagan did not have to navigate. Andrew Jackson waxed poetic on the virtue of the plowman as Reagan sounded morning in America. They gave hope to the disillusioned because the disillusioned were many. But every Republican candidate today is highlighting the evening in today’s America because if they can convince enough voters to identify with the disenchanted working class, Obama will lose the battleground states of FL, OH, CO, and NV. The candidates, however, are walking an increasingly fine line of empathizing with the base's sense of being culturally and economically eclipsed, and the political playbook's rule that elections are won on hope. Obama's challenge, on the other hand, is to re-fashion his message of hope -- and that is why he is aggressively courting young, college-educated whites -- even as wherever we look in the economy, it appears that it is still evening in America. And so it has been for two centuries, race, class, hope, and despair are locked into our quarrels about the future.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rick Perry 2012

A lackluster field of Republican candidates for president will receive a significant jolt if Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, decides to throw his hat in the ring. There is significant buzz now to take this possibility seriously.

The big story about Newt Gingrich's campaign implosion wasn't that 16 of his staff members walked out; it is that that two of them, Dave Carney and Rob Johnson (who managed Perry's last campaign when Perry beat Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by over 20 percentage points in the Republican primary), are longtime aides to the Governor who are now free to offer their services to him. I doubt it is mere coincidence that only a week before, Rick Perry ended years of denial and was reported to have said about running in 2012, "I'm gonna to think about it."

Perry would be a formidable candidate if he got in. For one, he has never lost an election in his life and if he comes in, it means he's done the math. Governors from big states already start off with an advantage because they can carry their state's electoral college votes with them, and Republican governors from Texas are especially advantaged because Texas is the biggest fundraising state for the party. An earlier favorite of the Tea Party, Perry would be able to articulate an authentic voice against big government and capture those votes originally reserved for the more colorful spokespersons of the movement whom we all know would not, in the end, actually run. (A Perry run would also conclusively kill all remaining speculation about whether or not there would be a Palin run, as they're both courting the same crowd.) As a third term governor, Perry would be able to speak with more executive experience and more authority against "beltway" insiders than the other governors in the declared field, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. Texas' job creation record in the last year has also been nothing short of astounding, making it home to 37 percent of the nation's newly created jobs since the recession ended, and you can bet Perry would take the credit for it if he runs. Finally,  Perry will benefit from his well-known rivalry with George Bush, while his fiscal fundamentalism and his secessionist sympathies would inoculate him from ties to the party establishment. For a Republican party yearning, after the Bush years, to return to original principles, Rick Perry is as authentic as it gets.

The Republican field is, to use Bill O'Reilly's caption for Tim Pawlenty, "vanilla" enough that there is tremendous hunger for a candidate with as much stylistic oomph -- never-mind the substance -- that could match the party's distaste for President Obama. (Witness the initial surge of interest in Herman Cain.) With no commanding frontrunner this late in the game, Perry has read the tea leaves and he is tempted. And the best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Sleaze Factor

If Congressman Anthony Weiner loses his job because of a few lewd pictures, he would probably have lost the most among a long line of unfaithful politicians for having sinned the least. Bill Clinton's encounters happened in the Oval Office (among other places). At least Larry Craig managed to graze another foot at a bathroom stall. But Anthony Weiner didn't even go much beyond Twitter. There is a chance that Weiner would endure the political storm (as Senator David Vitter and President Bill Clinton did), by waiting the scandal out and hoping that the uproar subsides. But two things stand in the way.

First, Anthony Weiner has no friends. He hasn't been around long enough, as Charlie Rangel had when he faced his own scandal, to have built up friendships and loyalties in the House. Actually, many Democrats privately believe that Weiner's an upstart who has adopted a combative style not to further the collective cause of the party but simply to side-step the rules of seniority in the party and to attract media attention to himself. This is why no one has stood up for Weiner; indeed they have done the reverse. Harry Reid was as only as quick to call for Weiner's resignation as Nancy Pelosi was to call for a formal ethics investigation.

Second, Weiner didn't go far enough to actually have, at least no evidence is yet forthcoming to the effect, a full-blown affair. And this may count against him because it increases the sleaze factor in his scandal. If Weiner had had an actual affair, he may actually look more like your typical cheating politician. But instead, he now looks like some wierdo who sends pictures of himself to strangers but did nothing to follow up, suggesting that the sexual pleasure consisted purely in the puerile act of sending lewd photos to unsuspecting victims. (I'm not endorsing a hierarchy of sins here, merely pointing out the arbitrariness of what counts as a damning political sin and what is not.)

The sleaze factor infecting Weiner's scandal was not aided by the fact that his wife did not join him at his confessional press conference. One reason why David Vitter and Larry Craig survived their scandals is that their wives stood by them, literally. For if the wives could forgive their husbands' indiscretions, who are we to judge?

Put another way, sexual misconduct does not have to become politically damaging. It was for Gary Hart and Eliot Spitzer, but it wasn't for John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The lesson for the politicians is not that they should be faithful to their spouses or even that they shouldn't get caught; but that if they're going to cheat, they should do it sans the sleaze. D.C. Madam, anyone?