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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How to Improve the Presidential Debates

From their inception, televised presidential general election debates have been an entertaining, rich cultural ritual. Consistently suspenseful, rancorous, and illustrious, the debates, a decades-long staple of the campaign season, are a spectacle. They are also, almost always, commonly misunderstood as conventional wisdom often trumpets them to be of greater importance to the final election result than what political science research tells us is true.

All too often though, what these debates are not is: informative. Tested soundbites, vapid skirmishes, and rhetorical flourishes are far too easy to come by in the debates. Rather than getting lost in policy minitue, they get lost in the tired Washington trope that is the "spin room."

Thankfully, there are serious suggestions as to how to reform the debates. The widely renowned Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has issued such recommendations, once and for all. When I first heard of these recommendations, I was thrilled in no small part because, in eighth grade, I gave, really, my first-ever speech.

My "8th grade speech," as the annual rite of passage was known at Wyoming Seminary Lower School, focused on how we could make presidential debates more substantive. In my research, I uncovered various surprisingly frequent and informed criticisms of the current presidential debates structure. These objections to the debate formats, as we know them, are entirely clear and compelling.

The suggestions of the Annenberg Center at UPenn are seemingly a direct answer to those criticisms. Pleasingly, these recommendations just so happen to be similar to those made in my eighth grade speech. Most importantly, the debates, as they are today and as the Annenberg Center recognizes, lend themselves to jocular one-liners, courtesy candidates like Ronald Reagan and Lloyd Bentsen (most notably), intense back and forth clashes like the ones Barack Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in during the 2012 town hall debate, and prime "gaffe" opportunities like Gerald Ford's 1976 quip on eastern Europe.

In a PBS NewsHour special on debates, George H.W. Bush lamented this aspect of our campaigns. Bush, who famously looked at his watch and expressed incredulity at a question on the national debt during the 1992 town hall debate, decried the "show business" involved in debates. "It's not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been," Bush told Jim Lehrer seven years later.

To combat this nature of debates, the Annenberg Center has recommended getting rid of the large live studio audience component. In my speech, I called for radio-only debates so as facial and other cues, as well as physical appearance and other attributes, would not have any influence on viewers. However, ridding of the large studio audience would have a similar effect. It would lessen the sporting match-like nature of the debates which currently are far too similar to performance-type theater.

Surely, the boisterous audience reaction in 1988 made Lloyd Bentsen's 'You're No Jack Kennedy' a more effective line; certainly, the laughs that filled the room in 1984 made Ronald Reagan's "age and experience" line against Walter Mondale more memorable. More recently, in an often overlooked debate moment, George W. Bush's nod to Al Gore, as he awkwardly closely approached him during a Q and A, in the 2000 town hall debate was buoyed by the audience reaction that clearly favored Bush.

Another frequent criticism of the debates is the fact that the candidates so freely break the rules on time limits. Many observers noted that Barack Obama spoke for longer than Mitt Romney during the first 2012 debate even though, theoretically, they are given the same opportunities for question, answer, and rebuttal. This shouldn't be the case as there ought to be an obligation to be fair and impartial and that means the debates should adhere as strictly as possible to the TV equal time principles enshrined in our federal campaign laws. Again, the Annenberg Center, with their "chess clock" suggestion of 45 minutes allotted for speaking time per candidate, provides a solid recommendation.

Lastly, a key objection to the current debate model is the lack of diverse, serious, and substantive issues discussed in the debates. In my eighth grade speech, I pointed to studies that demonstrated how vital issues like urban poverty, trade, environmental justice, civil liberties in national security policy, and the impact of the war on drugs were all routinely ignored in presidential debates.

This problem persisted in the coming years. In fact, during the 2012 general election debates, abortion rights, gay rights, free trade, voting rights, and climate change -- very salient issues in our contemporary political debate -- and other policy matters were never mentioned. Gun control, which was thrust into the forefront of the national political agenda mere months after the 2012 election, was only mentioned once and the state of America's poor, a category that grew significantly in the Great Recession, was largely ignored.

In the United States, we pride ourselves and our political system on being model examples to the world of how representative democracy is supposed to work. The best way to ensure that we are living up to our values, in this regard, is to strengthen the discussion of a range of important policy issues in these debates. In my speech, I called for the abolition of the Commission on Presidential Debates, as this group of Beltway partisan elite lobbyists focus on issues that they are more attuned to, as opposed to what affects tens of millions of viewers. The Annenberg Center, on the other hand, has devised serious recommendations that would go a long way towards improving the issues discussed.

These include "expanding the pool of potential moderators," broadening and expanding the pool and methods from which questions are drawn so as to include queries from groups made up of "knowledgable experts" and university professors (among other actors), and some kind of further audience input in questions. These steps would undeniably diversify the questions asked and in case one needed any convincing on that, look no further than the 2007 YouTube Democratic debate.

In that primary debate, viewers asked questions, like ones on international diplomacy with our enemies and gun safety laws, that probably would never have been fielded by the moderators. Consequently, we got insightful answers on questions from politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden in that debate and now, when they govern in the way they do on matters like Iran and gun policy, we know what to expect and what guides them as they revealed as much in that debate.

These fixes, if applied properly, will not cure all of the problems with our presidential debates. However, these recommendations, based on thorough and comprehensive research and analysis from bright minds and intelligent experts on these matters, are a proper way forward on debates. These suggestions would certainly improve our presidential debates and, as such, they should be adopted. Read the Annenberg Center's full report here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The most important thing I learned in college

I learned a lot in college, including in a variety of courses, especially those within my major of political science. In fact, most notably, in the academic sphere, I took three courses explicitly related to anti-poverty programs and social welfare policy. I learned more about the New Deal, Great Society, and Obama-era social programs than probably anything else of academic substance. 

Beyond these issues, I became much more familiar with the political science theories that underpin smart analyses of presidential election outcomes, how to advance social change, how to write better, and even some of the science behind climate change, nuclear energy, and railroads. 

However, the most important thing I learned in college was not any specific piece of information from any of my classes. Instead, the classes themselves, the extracurricular activities I pursued, and my relationships with my friends here collectively taught me one overriding great lesson. 

The most important thing I learned in college was that you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. This is not to imply that I was a hypocrite or vapid before college but instead to say that, in the first half of college, I lost sight of my priorities, became too immersed in pettiness, and became too distracted. 

In this sense, I echo what my friend Charlie Sucher said when he said the most important thing he learned in college was the prioritization of his values. Social science research actually shows, unsurprisingly, that many individuals often profess to believe in certain values of life but do not follow through with actions to back up those words. College is a time when this discrepancy can become wide open as it is, as one playwright famously said, "the most selfish four years of your life."

For me, this gap between walking the walk and talking the talk was particularly present in the first half of college. It is easy for this to happen because of the luxuries and privileges associated with college life, especially at a place like GW where many of us, including me, are lucky to be children of very financially successful families. The impetus for laziness is all too real. 

As time passed though, and as I matured in my worldview and self-care, I learned that in order to gain respect and credibility, and to act in concert with the principles of my Christian faith, I had to adjust. I took better care of myself, read and studied more voraciously, proactively sought to be a better listener with my friends, and demonstrated attentive and arduous leadership when it was demanded in extracurricular activities.

Through it all, I made mistakes, sometimes did not live up to my words, and gave in to temptation. These errors are all too human though. They made me a better person and they forced me to reevaluate my priorities. In the second half of college, I continually strived to refocus my compass on the important notion of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. 

We have a moral obligation to ourselves and to others to live up to the values we profess to believe in in our rhetoric. Despite its natural selfishness, college -- with all of its opportunities for learning and life lessons it can teach you -- is perhaps the most important time to learn this. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Explaining the Radical Shift in Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage

PUBLIC OPINION ON GAY MARRIAGE 

(Essay for Professor John Sides' Public Opinion course)

           
In the U.S., public approval of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples has increased significantly since the question was first asked in opinion polling. Notably, this increase, though crucially strong among young Americans, is seen across virtually all demographics. Consistently now, a majority of Americans tell pollsters they back gay marriage rights. This shift in public opinion is attributable to a variety of factors. These causes include the greater personal familiarity with gays and lesbians in life, the depiction of gays in popular culture, and the decline of religion and moral traditionalism in affecting public opinion. Public support for same-sex marriage cannot be fully analyzed without dissecting the history of public tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gays themselves. These concepts are inextricably linked even if support for marriage equality is not entirely consistently reflective of an equal degree of tolerance for gays.  As gays continue to win marriage rights across the country, the future of public opinion on this issue, as well as the implications for public policy, both appear bright for gay and lesbian Americans.

With regards to the dramatic spike in support for gay marriage over the course of the last several years, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. In the Gallup poll, 27% of respondents agreed that “marriages between same-sex couples should be valid” in March 1996. By May 2014, a decade later, 55% of respondents expressed support for this statement – an 11-point increase in just four years. According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of respondents in 2009 supported same-sex marriage legalization but just five years later, 54% of respondents said they favored it. In the ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll, 49% of respondents agreed in April 2009 that it should be “legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.” By spring 2013, 58% of respondents agreed with this statement.  In a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59% of respondents supported gay marriage rights – 10 points higher than in October 2009. In a June 2013 CBS/New York Times poll, 51% of respondents agreed same-sex marriage should be legal whereas just 13 months beforehand, only 42% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization.
The increased support for same-sex marriage rights cuts across virtually all demographics. Comparisons of 2004 and 2013-14 polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Pew Research Center, and Gallup support this finding. In a 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57% of 18-29-year olds, 33% of 30-64-year olds, and 18% of respondents 65 and older supported gay marriage legalization. In spring 2013, 81%, 56%, and 44% of respondents in these age cohorts, respectively, supported it. The same poll showed that Republican, Democratic, and Independent support for gay marriage rose by 18%, 29%, and 24% respectively in this time span. Support among both men and women rose by roughly 25%, by 23% among whites but 33% among nonwhites, by double digits among liberals and conservatives and moderates, and, strikingly, by 19% among Catholics and 25% among white Protestants.
Pew polling found support for same-sex marriage legalization rose markedly among other groups too in the same period. Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, support for gay marriage rights increased from 61% in 2004 to 74% in 2013. Among black Protestants, support rose from 19% in 2004 to 32% in 2013. In 2014, Gallup found support for gay marriage legalization at 67% in the East, 58% in the West, 53% in the Midwest, and 48% in the South – all drastically higher than in 2004.
This rise in public support for gay marriage must be understood in tandem with the history of public attitudes towards gays and homosexuality generally. It is public tolerance of homosexuals that is strongly linked to support for gay marriage rights. Acceptance of gays and support for same-sex marriages do not identically mirror each other but there is a clear link. As public acceptance of homosexuality improved, so too did public backing of gay marriage. The trend lines have been most notably reflected in Gallup data. Gallup noted how the continual increase, from 2004 to 2014, in public tolerance with gay and lesbian relations “mirror[ed] the growth in public support for legalizing gay marriage.” In 2004, 42% of Gallup respondents believed gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” whereas the same exact percentage of respondents believed same-sex marriages “should be valid.” In 2011, 56% of Gallup respondents agreed that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable while 53% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization. This trend of tolerance and support for marriage equality increasing simultaneously is also seen in the General Social Survey (GSS). 54% of GSS respondents said gay relations were “always wrong” in 2000 whereas 44% said so in 2010. In 2000, 30% of GSS respondents supported gay marriage but by 2010, 46% backed it.
To understand how these changes came about is to understand what factors allowed for this greater tolerance of gays, which, in turn, led to greater support for gay marriage. The single most important influence in this regard was more Americans continually getting to know relatives, friends, and colleagues who were gay and who came out as gay. As a 2007 Pew analysis said, “familiarity is closely linked to tolerance,” a finding reflected in poll results that showed respondents with gay friends and relatives were more likely to favor nondiscrimination against gays and, by a 55%-25% margin, more likely to favor gay marriage (Pew Research Center/Neidorf and Morin, “Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who are Gay”). Public opinion polling demonstrates that as Americans are increasingly exposed to gay and lesbian individuals, they grow increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. In 2010, 77% of CBS News poll respondents said they “kn[ew] someone who is gay or lesbian” but in 1992, just 42% of respondents said so. 38% of respondents in a 1992 CBS News poll said homosexuality was an “acceptable alternative lifestyle” but by 2009, 54% said there was nothing wrong with gay relationships. Consequently, CBS News determined the polling showed that “knowing someone who is gay or lesbian” was a strong determinant of acceptance of homosexuality (CBS News/Montopoli, “Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval for Gays”).
 Further, the phenomenon of how knowing gay relatives and friends fuels higher support for gay marriage is supported by a vast array of polling evidence and professional analysis. In the Pew poll, 61% of Americans said in 1993 that they knew someone who is gay or lesbian but 87% said in 2013 that they did. That same year, a Pew poll noted “roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who knew a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.” Forcing the Spring author Jo Becker’s research reaffirmed that “the number one reason why [gay marriage support has increased] is that more…people have come out” (Basu, The Atlantic, “Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever”). Indeed, a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 77% of Americans said they personally knew a gay person – up 15% from 2004 – and among this group, 65% supported gay marriage rights. Studies dissected by Michael Klarman in his book, From the Closet to the Alter, made the case that the correlation between knowing gays and supporting gay marriage was strong enough to support causation. Citing public opinion polls that showed that, as more Americans came to know people who were gay, public support for gay marriage climbed, Klarman argued, “one of the factors that most strongly predicts support for gay equality is knowing someone who is openly gay” (Klarman, Los Angeles Times, “Why gay marriage is inevitable”). A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey showed respondents who knew an LGBT individual were more likely to “favor gay marriage” by a 63%-36% margin. The PRRI found that while in 1993, 22% of respondents said they had a “close friend or family member” who identified as gay or lesbian, 65% of respondents said so in 2013. In that time, support for gay marriage rights in the PRRI poll grew from 32% in 2004 to 53% in 2014. Notably, in a 2013 Pew poll, respondents were asked why they changed their minds to support gay marriage and the most popular response, provided by 32% of respondents, was that they “know someone…who is homosexual.”
Pop culture also appears to have played a role in rising support for gay marriage. When Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in a 2012 Meet the Press interview, he referenced the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. The show, which depicted gay characters, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything,” Biden said (Barbaro, The New York Times, “A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage”). The evidence backs up the Vice President’s statement. Several University of Minnesota professors’ studies demonstrated that Will and Grace, and other TV shows with gay characters like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, made Americans more tolerable of gay relationships and contributed to “lower levels of prejudice” against gays (Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes, Comparative Media Studies, “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis”). A similar effect is visible with ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family, a popular series that portrays a gay couple. 27% of respondents in a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll said the show made them “more pro-gay marriage” whereas 2% said it made them “more anti-same-sex marriage.” Public opinion researcher Paul Brewer noted the importance of pop culture was that it challenged stigmas associated with gays so that gays were seen as “individual people rather than as an undifferentiated mass,” per Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley (Clawson and Oxley, 179). In a 2008 Harris poll, 32% of respondents claimed the depiction of gays and lesbians in TV shows and films “helped change their views,” including towards support for gay marriage.
The decreasing role that religion plays in public life, as well as the decline in the importance of moral traditionalism in politics, helped bring about a change in views too. Americans who regularly attend church, identify as Evangelical Christians, and say that moral values are significant in their voting decisions consistently oppose gay marriage (National Journal/Ronald Brownstein, “Preaching to the Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties”). Pew found that “religious beliefs are a major factor” in opposition to gay marriage (Pew, “In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as ‘Inevitable’). However, the number of Americans who identify with these traits has declined in the last decade (The New York Times/Dickerson, “The Decline of Evangelical America”). As such, the political factor of moral traditionalism that Clawson and Oxley discussed has faded in its effect in shaping public opinion on gay marriage.  
This linkage of religion with views on gay marriage, and how the declining impact of religion in shaping these views is helping buttress support for gay marriage, is seen in polls. For one, confidence in organized religion, led by anti-gay marriage leaders like the Pope and populated by scores of preachers who routinely advocate against gay marriage, has declined in the Gallup poll. Whereas in 1996, 57% of respondents said they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion, 45% said so in 2014. In that time, support for same-sex marriage in Gallup skyrocketed. Second, it is clear churchgoing Americans are more inclined to oppose gay marriage while Americans who rarely or never attend church are more inclined to support it, per Gallup, among other sources. Indeed, according to Gallup, “a simple indicator of religiosity – regular service attendance – is a powerful predictor of views on same-sex marriage” (Gallup/Newport, “Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage”). As church attendance has declined though, support for gay marriage has climbed (Pew/Lipka, “What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home”).
Beyond that, Paul Brewer found that the role of moral traditionalism – defined by Clawson and Oxley as “belief that traditional family and societal organization is best” – in public opinion weakened considerably between 1992 and 2000 and this change contributed to stronger support for gay rights (Clawson and Oxley, 178 and 421). Further, in the same month (May 2010) that Gallup found a record high 16% of respondents identifying with no religion, they also found for the first time that a majority of respondents believed gay relations were “morally acceptable.” A 2012 Gallup poll puts these two separate findings into a different context as it showed that 88% of the subset of Americans who do not identify with a religion supported same-sex marriage legalization – a higher level of support than virtually any other group. As this group rises in number, and as it is clear that this group is overwhelmingly supportive of gay marriage rights, this trajectory bodes well for gay marriage proponents.
 Vitally, an April 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll made a convincing case that a decline in the importance of morals and religion in politics in public opinion influenced views on gays. The poll showed that 43% of respondents said a “decline in moral values” was a source of “serious problems” in the U.S. – a sizable decline from the 51% who said so in 1993. As NBC News political analyst John Harwood explained, “the shift helps explain…the rising acceptance of gay marriage” (CNBC/Harwood, “US Problems About More Than ‘Moral Values’: NBC/WSJ Poll). Further, a 2014 PRRI survey lent credence to the notion that disenchantment with religion, especially among young Americans, is helping increase support for gay marriage. The poll found 31% of Millennials who “left their childhood religion” said “negative teachings about” homosexuality was an “important factor” in their decision. Consequently, this group’s support for gay marriage rights has only hardened in intensity.
In terms of the implications of public opinion on gay marriage for political leaders and public policy, there are several important elements that bode well for gays. For one, a March 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that 34% of respondents would prefer a pro-gay marriage presidential candidate whereas 26% said they would prefer a candidate opposed to gay marriage. This finding suggests future presidential candidates who oppose gay marriage will be more reluctant to emphasize their opposition at risk of alienating voters. Such behavior would be consistent with the very recent history of political elites largely following the public on this issue. Politicians are mostly receiving their cues on this issue from voters – a trend that is likely to continue. When only 40% of Americans supported same-sex marriage in the Gallup poll in 2008, President Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage despite his support for other LGBT-friendly policies. In May 2012, during a week in which Gallup showed 50% of Americans supported gay marriage legalization, Obama personally endorsed it too. Obama’s own former political strategist David Axelrod admitted that public opinion was a crucial factor in the timing of Obama’s announcement (CNN/Alexandra Jaffe, “Axelrod explains Obama on gay marriage: ‘Leaders work this way’).
The executive branch is not the only segment of the federal government in which elites are now following the public. A wide array of legal and political analysts widely expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a federal constitutional right to marriage for gays nationwide this summer. One core reason why the Court is poised to make this ruling is public opinion. Although the Court ostensibly remains above the political fray, there is significant evidence that public opinion plays a crucial role in influencing the scope and effect of Court decisions. Cognizant of the varying potential reactions to their (often) controversial rulings, justices are keen to the changes in public mood on the issues they adjudicate. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner said on this issue, “same-sex marriage is advancing…[and] that’s what the relevant majorities of the justices care about” (Washington Monthly/Voeten, “How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion”).
In terms of the implications for the major political parties, Democratic politicians will likely be in a position in which their base voters – primarily self-identified liberal Democrats – will expect them to support gay marriage. A 2012 Pew poll showed an overwhelming 83% of liberal Democrats support gay marriage. “The strongest gay marriage supporters,” The Huffington Post wrote last March, “are mostly self-described liberal Democrats” (The Huffington Post/Edwards-Levy, “Americans Would Rather Vote for a President Who Supports Gay Marriage”). Given this intensity of support, and given the fact that more Americans strongly support gay marriage than strongly oppose it, it is unsurprising that numerous Democratic members of Congress came out in support of gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 after applied public pressure (Politico/Robillard, “Poll: 58 percent back gay marriage”). With regards to Republican politicians, their own base of senior citizens, Evangelicals, and self-described conservatives, among other voters, remain mostly opposed to gay marriage (The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). However, the broader public support for gay marriage might compel some Republican politicians, especially those who represent battleground or Democratic districts and states, to endorse gay marriage. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), for instance, has already backed same-sex marriage, likely in anticipation of a difficult 2016 reelection bid in his heavily Democratic state (The Christian Science Monitor/Guarino, “Republican Sen. Mark Kirk backs gay marriage: How big a deal?”).
One key factor though in determining the influence of public opinion on policy here is the salience of the issue. On the whole, a 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed merely 8% of voters identified gay marriage as “one of the most important” issues in impacting their vote. Considering this finding, it is likely that elites will avoid making gay marriage support or opposition a central priority of theirs in their political agenda, rhetoric, and actions. In fact, the low salience of the issue might explain why neither President Obama nor Governor Romney mentioned gay marriage in any of the 2012 presidential debates (NPR/Greenblatt, “During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Defeaning”). Ultimately though, the rising support for gay marriage does not necessarily mean public opinion challenges don’t remain for gays.
In additional to all of this evidence, between 2008 and 2010 in Gallup, a notable 8% of respondents expressed support for validating gay marriages but did not believe that gay relations were morally acceptable. Further evidence of a similar discrepancy is observed in Pew polling which showed “it may be easier for a respondent to say legalize gay marriage than to say I favor legalizing it.” Pew found that polls that asked generally about legalization elicited higher support than those that asked about whether respondents personally supported gay marriage (Pew/Kohut, “Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?”) They pointed to a 2013 Quinnipiac poll in which only 47% of Americans favored same-sex marriage when respondents were asked simply if they “supported or opposed gay marriage.” Regardless, the broader truth remains the same: support for gay marriage has risen recently, among all groups, even regardless of question wording.








BIBLIOGRAPHY
1.     Clawson, Rosalee A., and Zoe M. Oxley. 2013. Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, Seond Edition. Washington: CQ Press. Pages 178-180 and 291-295.
2.     Kohut, Andrew. "Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?" Pew Research Center. March 29, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2013/03/29/yes-more-americans-favor-legalizing-gay-marriage-but-just-how-many-do/.
3.     Montopoli, Brian. "Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval For Gays." CBS News. June 9, 2010. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-with-higher-visibility-less-disapproval-for-gays/.
4.     Neidorf, Shawn, and Rich Morin. "Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who Are Gay." Pew Research Center. May 22, 2007. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/05/22/fourinten-americans-have-close-friends-or-relatives-who-are-gay/.
5.     Harwood, John. "US Problems About More Than 'Moral Values': Poll." CNBC. April 12, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/id/100635460.
6.     Newport, Frank. "Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage." Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage. December 5, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/159089/religion-major-factor-americans-opposed-sex-marriage.aspx.
7.     "In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as 'Inevitable'" Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. June 6, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.people-press.org/2013/06/06/in-gay-marriage-debate-both-supporters-and-opponents-see-legal-recognition-as-inevitable/.
8.     Brownstein, Ronald. "Preaching to The Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties." National Journal. April 6, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-america/newsdesk/gay-marriage-democrats-gop-divide-20150406.
9.     Dickerson, John. "The Decline of Evangelical America." The New York Times. December 15, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/the-decline-of-evangelical-america.html.
10.  Lipka, Michael. "What Surveys Say about Worship Attendance – and Why Some Stay Home." Pew Research Center. September 13, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/13/what-surveys-say-about-worship-attendance-and-why-some-stay-home/.
11.  Greenblatt, Alan. "During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Deafening." NPR. October 23, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/10/23/163488809/during-debates-silence-on-some-issues-was-deafening.
12.  Guarino, Mike. "Republican Sen. Mark Kirk Backs Gay Marriage: How Big a Deal?" The Christian Science Monitor. April 2, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2013/0402/Republican-Sen.-Mark-Kirk-backs-gay-marriage-How-big-a-deal.
13.  Robillard, Kevin. "Poll: 58 Percent Back Gay Marriage." POLITICO. March 1, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/poll-58-percent-back-gay-marriage-89025.html.
14.  Voeten, Erik. "How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion." The Washington Monthly. June 28, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2013/06/how_the_supreme_court_responds045541.php.
15.  Edwards-Levy, Ariel. "Americans Would Rather Vote For A President Who Supports Gay Marriage." The Huffington Post. March 8, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/18/gay-marriage-2016_n_6895026.html.
16.  Basu, Tanya. "Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever." The Atlantic. March 3, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/why-more-americans-accept-gay-marriage-than-ever/386707/.
17.  Klarman, Michael. "Why Gay Marriage Is Inevitable." Los Angeles Times. February 12, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/12/opinion/la-oe-klarman-gay-marriage-and-the-courts-20120212.
18.  "Survey | A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues." Public Religion Research Institute. February 1, 2014. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/02/2014-lgbt-survey/#.VSaJPTTF9p8.
19.  Barbaro, Michael. "A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage." The New York Times. May 6, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/us/politics/biden-expresses-support-for-same-sex-marriages.html?_r=0.
20.  Schiappa, Edward, Gregg, Peter, and Hewes, Dean. “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis.” Communication Monographs. March 1, 2005. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://cmsw.mit.edu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/The-Parasocial-Contact-Hypothesis.pdf.
21.  Jaffe, Alexandra. "Axelrod on Obama: 'Leaders Work This Way' - CNN.com." CNN. February 11, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/11/politics/obama-david-axelrod-interview/.
22.  The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com





Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Iran, a Big Win for Obama

In a July 2007 CNN/YouTube Democratic primary debate, Senator Barack Obama made the case for negotiating with the United States' most strident foreign enemies. "The notion," Obama argued, "that not talking to countries is punishment" for them was flawed. Obama made the case that he would be willing to meet "without preconditions" with leaders like Iran's president in order to bridge differences for the sake of a more peaceful world. For making this suggestion, Obama was widely mocked by the Beltway foreign policy elite, including his future first-term Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Two years later, as President of the United States, Obama delivered a compelling Nowruz address to the Iranian people in which he made a strong case for a nuanced approach to Iran. In his 2009 Iranian New Year message, Obama envisioned a future with "renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership."

However, he understood, as demonstrated in his rhetoric and action, that this future was only possible through tough diplomacy mixed with pressure, when appropriate, cunning engagement with the Iranian people, and international cooperation.

Unlike neoconservative foreign policy thinkers, Obama and his team recognized that regime change by force, draconian economic punishments, and military action against Iranian nuclear facilities would only embolden Iranian hardliners while alienating an Iranian public that is actually unusually pro-American.

Today, as he approaches the twilight of a presidency with a decidedly mixed foreign policy record, President Obama can rightfully triumph the results of the agreed upon multilateral framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. The successful results of the negotiations of his persistent Secretary of State, John Kerry, with Iran's U.S.-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and several major American allies thus far indicate that Obama's sensible vision is being reaffirmed.

The deal significantly limits Iran's uranium enrichment abilities, allows for extremely intrusive inspections, reduces their capacity to ever consider weaponization, and permits gradual sanctions relief upon verification. In important wins for the United States, the deal cuts in half the number of spinning centrifuges at the Natanz facility and the controversial Arak reactor "would operate on a limited basis that would not provide enough fuel for a bomb," The New York Times reported.

Crucially, the deal appears strong enough that it is being lauded by the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association as being a good deal, for what it's worth. It's the kind of comprehensive solution advocated for by Middle East policy expert Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle, former longtime U.S. diplomats Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, ex-CIA agent and nuclear nonproliferation expert Valerie Plame Wilson, and foreign policy fellows at respected institutions like the Center for American Progress and the New American Foundation, including scores of American and Israeli generals.

This expert consensus only augments President Obama's case for this deal as it is reflective of his trust of an evidence-based policy backed by experienced diplomats, military officials, and negotiators. Further, it's vital to note that our sanctions on Iran's human rights abusers and terrorism-related sanctions remain in place thus ensuring that pressure on radical elements of the government remains in place.

To understand why this deal is such a big win for Obama and his vision on Iran is to understand the aforementioned history of his views, as well as the implications of this news. In terms of the Obama team's approach, the President bet that public diplomacy a la his Nowruz messages, his letters to Iran's leaders, and exempting food and medicine and personal technology from sanctions, among other actions, would help deconstruct the "Great Satan" image of the United States among Iranians.

It worked, from all we know, as several polls, articles, and other accounts of the Obama era indicate the Iranian people are remarkably not only pro-American but also pro-Obama. That kind of approach allowed for the Iranian people to put pressure on their leaders to work constructively with the U.S. to resolve the nuclear issue. As Iranians saw that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime was not interested in serious diplomacy with the U.S. on this issue and as the Iranian public sought sanctions relief, they fled to the polls to vote in the more moderate Hassan Rouhani.

Beyond that, the Obama administration embraced strong-armed diplomacy over hawkish belligerence but still pulled it all off without strengthening the worst elements of the regime. They did this because they understood that diplomacy and negotiations with Iran would strengthen the hand of the more sensible elements of Iran's government. Those elements wished better relations with the U.S. in order to become part of the community of nations and it is those elements that finally took the reigns in 2013.

If Obama had instead pursued a more punitive and bellicose policy, it would have blown up in his face. That approach could have meant genocidal sanctions and military action that would only have helped Iranian hardliners make the case to their citizens that the U.S. is an evil power thus helping justifying a case for nuclear weapons. The evidence that military strikes would even work to dismantle Iranian nuclear facilities was not convincing either.

Meanwhile, the hardliners would be marginalized through this negotiation process because the radicals' entire foreign policy framework is based on disseminating an image of the U.S. as the "Great Satan." They shun cooperation with the U.S., as evidenced with the ultraconservative Majlis' effort to condemn Zarif for taking a stroll with Kerry in Geneva. As the Iranian people saw clearly that the U.S. was interested in resolving the nuclear issue peacefully, it would become increasingly harder for the regime to paint the U.S. as the world's greatest evil.

Vitally too, the Obama administration ramped up sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian state-run media, and other elements of the regime known for their flagrant human rights violations without allowing their broader-based sanctions to resemble 1990's Iraq sanctions that contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Again, this policy was based on the notion of empowering the Iranian people and moderates but reducing the power of hardliners.

Lastly, the administration bet on multilateral, hard-nosed, and exhaustive diplomacy that incorporated the top foreign ministers of major world powers and Iran to be the final key to peacefully resolving this matter. As noted above, Obama followed the advice of experienced foreign policy experts in taking on this task.

He did so because the administration knew this kind of deal -- inspections and enrichment limits in exchange for sanctions relief -- was in reach for many reasons: Iran had previously expressed sympathy to these terms in 2003, the Iranian government badly wanted sanctions relief to grow their economy, and the Rouhani/Zarif mindset was one that sought this diplomacy in order to make Iran a world player. Obama also recognized that the alternatives to such an approach were unacceptable: tougher sanctions and war, neither of which benefited the Iranian people.

Obama's bet is paying off, as seen in today's news. The implications are potentially huge as the U.S.' leadership role here in bringing Iran out of isolation and showing commitment to diplomacy will only improve our image among Iranians. The symbolic, anecdotal evidence of this is seen already as Iranian state-run TV, in an unusual move, aired Obama's Rose Garden speech on the deal live and many Iranians took to Twitter to take selfies with and celebrate Obama.

Importantly too, the deal will empower Rouhani, who has taken on the Revolutionary Guards (among other radicals), who ran on negotiating with the West, but weaken hardliners opposed to diplomacy. The deal could open the door to economic relief for Iran thus allowing for a more open, freer economy that could set the stage for a freer Iran, both in commerce and in politics.

Obviously, most importantly, the deal cuts off pathways to a nuclear weapon, as described by both Obama in the Rose Garden and by the Arms Control Association, which is obviously good news for international security. If Iran ever were to obtain a nuclear weapon, it would be a harmful development that would trigger an arms race in the Middle East and Iran's support of its own horrid Quds Force, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Bashar Assad makes weaponization a scary prospect. To prevent a weapon, without having to engage militarily in what could become a disastrous back and forth, is a big victory for global stability.

Much remains to be seen and Iran's leaders have shown before that they cannot be fully trusted but, for now, this deal is a huge win for the President, for the Iranian people, and for peace. Certainly, as a son of Iranian immigrants and as a supporter of President Obama, it is a good day.