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Monday, March 25, 2013

A Uniquely American Journey: The Dramatic Change of a Country, Its President, and a Culture

(PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, 2012 GETTY IMAGES) 

Before their groundbreaking 1973 decision to reverse course, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental disorder. At the time, many Americans agreed and they found the whole notion of homosexuality to be so outside of mainstream conventional behavior that polling showed that an overwhelming majority of the public did not even support hiring gays or lesbians as schoolteachers. Fast forward a quarter century later and though the public opinion on that question reversed by the late 1990s, public policy was still tilted towards denying equality. In a widely bipartisan vote, the Republican-controlled Congress overwhelmingly passed the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. A Democratic president who the gay rights movement had been hoping would be on their side in this case signed DOMA into law at 1 AM in the middle of his reelection campaign. Bill Clinton proceeded to brag about what he had done despite now saying the law should be repealed. At the time, just 27 percent of Americans backed same-sex marriage, a right that DOMA explicitly denied at the national level by stating that federal law defined marriage as a "union between a man and a woman." 
Despite celebrating limited victories, the gay rights movement was seemingly going nowhere by the turn of the century. Don't Ask/Don't Tell, billed as a compromise, became an atrocious injustice and DOMA was now the law of the land. As America entered the new millennium, gay Americans found even less hope at the federal level with "moral values"-touting George W. Bush, famously supportive of a Federal Marriage Amendment, in the Oval Office. Bush, after all, was leading a party whose rise to power was fueled by the Religious Right. This was the same Religious Right whose stranglehold on another president they helped elect, Ronald Reagan, was so strong that he criticized the "alternative...[gay] lifestyle" in his 1980 campaign and would not acknowledge the existence of AIDS until 1987. In fact, the power of this movement in American politics was such that it stifled meaningful progress on gay rights for decades after the APA's decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. The demoralization was evident in the reaction of some of the LGBT community to Andrew Sullivan's 1989 call for gay marriage to be legalized; Sullivan was actually met with loud and vociferous protests from supporters of LGBT rights for such a radical suggestion. Much of the LGBT community, rationally, thought this idea could not possibly come to fruition after the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 that states could actually codify anti-sodomy laws. 

Setbacks and regression ultimately began to run their course though. In 2003, the very first signs of true progress for gay Americans were evident. Massachusetts became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court overturned Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas. Still though, the American public - in spite of things like Will and Grace opening their eyes up to the gay community - was not on board with the LGBT agenda. A year later, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom permitted his city to conduct same-sex marriages, though ultimately annulled by California, in violation of state law and Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed gay marriage. Still, Americans were not on board. In 11 states, including the swing state of Ohio, Americans voted that November to ban same-sex marriage while the public at large also reelected President Bush. In Bush's second term though, gay rights activists found hope. For one, Bush, almost immediately, disappointed the Religious Right by forgoing the pursuit of a federal marriage amendment in favor of a (failed) Social Security reform effort. Secondly, as Bush grew increasingly unpopular, so too did his policies -- and America, ever so slightly, began moving left. In 2007, the major Democratic candidates for President all condemned DADT and pledged to repeal it while Barack Obama pledged to go a step further and push for full repeal of DOMA - something Hillary Clinton would not endorse. By the time President Obama was elected a year later, a majority of Americans backed the repeal of DADT and more Americans were in support of gay marriage than ever before, albeit not a majority. Not only was America becoming more progressive and not only had it elected a leader sympathetic to the LGBT cause but millions of gay and lesbian Americans were increasingly coming out of the closet. The collective coming out of millions over the course of the last several years undoubtedly furthered public support of this cause. Scores of anecdotal evidence cited in a recent Huffington Post article combined with public opinion polling, which shows people were moved to support gay rights because of gay family and friends, confirms this to be the case. 

Further facilitating the elevation of gay rights into the national discourse was the work of the Human Rights Campaign, People for the American Way, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and scores of other grassroots organizations, that started from the bottom and got lucky (in some cases) with the financial support of wealthy donors and political figures. Their fundraising, phone banking, door-to-door canvassing, and advocacy efforts shed a public light on the gay rights movement - identifiable as both middle-class Americans and popular celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris - and led to the legalization of gay marriage in several states. The public quickly warmed up to idea of full repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell as well as they saw their fellow Americans denied the opportunity to serve their country as it fought two wars abroad simply because of their sexual orientation. The presence of the wars undeniably helped highlight this injustice and by 2010, 70 percent of Americans, including millions of Republican voters, backed DADT repeal. Obama helped bolster this public support by enlisting the backing of military commanders, leading officers, and generals for his efforts and by December 2010, he was able to say "this is done" when he signed into law the repeal. That wasn't the only piece of legislation that Obama signed that gay rights groups had wanted. Thanks to significant public pressure exerted on the President by the LGBT movement, Obama was compelled to order his Justice Department to refuse to defend DOMA in federal courts, sign the Matthew Shephard Hate Crimes Act, extend hospital visitation benefits to gay couples, and guarantee equal benefits for same-sex federal employees. As Obama led on the issue, thanks in no small part to a concerted effort to keep him at his word, millions of Americans quickly changed their minds on gay rights. By 2011, Gallup found that a majority of the public, 53 percent, supported same-sex marriage for the first time ever. A year later, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to publicly back gay marriage -- a significant turning point for a movement which had been continually disappointed by a string of presidents who ignored their cause. Obama's, and Joe Biden's, backing of gay marriage led to an almost immediate boost in public support for marriage equality - nationally, in swing states, and among constituents with which he had great sway: registered Democrats and African-Americans. Within time, the issue became seemingly no longer controversial as it was not mentioned once in any of the presidential debates and Mitt Romney largely remained quiet, despite opposing marriage equality. The Democratic Party quickly adopted support for gay marriage into its national platform and that November, Obama was reelected while Washingtonians, Maine residents, and Marylanders all made gay marriage legal in their states. Fast forward to the last few weeks and the gay rights movement saw yet more impressive victories: an American President used the word "gay," referencing the Stonewall riots, in an Inaugural address and that same president filed two briefs in the Supreme Court asking the Court to side for marriage equality in both the Prop 8 and DOMA cases.

Today, 58 percent of Americans support gay marriage; it is backed by all living Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents, a former Republican Vice President, two former Secretaries of State of different parties, a majority of congressional Democrats, at least 76 prominent Republicans including an Ohio Senator and former U.S. Ambassador, and, for the first time ever, the highest court in the land is hearing a case on this specific issue. Political scientists, journalists, and assorted analysts of media and politics have been left collectively amazed by how vast, quick, and stunning the sea change in public attitudes towards gay rights has been. For a country founded on the notion that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were necessary tenants of our republic, this dramatic shift is one of which we ought to be proud. This is what American exceptionalism looks like. The success of the gay rights movement is part of the great history of the American people -- a people with a history of continual social progress fueled by mass movements of Americans rising up and demanding successfully that we live up to our core creed of "all men are created equal." In seeing their quest for full equality come to fruition, the LGBT movement joins, in the annals of history, the movements of abolitionists, women's suffragists, and civil rights marchers in being part of that great American journey of continually aiming to be a "more perfect union." Like those movements that preceded them, the gay rights movement can claim that they used all levers of power, from the bottom up with the help of millions of their fellow countrymen, to advance their cause and see to it that the American ideals of "liberty and justice for all" were protected. 

It is likely that the Supreme Court will repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8, at the very least extending federal benefits to legally married same sex couples and ruling that gay marriage is legalized in California. However, in my opinion, I am optimistic and ready to go out on a limb. I believe that the Court will not only make that ruling but that it will further find that denying same-sex couples the right of marriage violates the 5th Amendment guarantee of not depriving one of "liberty" without due process of law and violates the 14th Amendment pledge of not denying one "equal protection under the law." In going this far, the Court will find that it contradicts the precedent set in Loving v. Virginia that marriage is a federal "fundamental right" --- thus issuing one single ruling that gay marriage is legal in all 50 states. I am confident in this opinion because the country appears ready for it, as the polling indicates and as the sentiment of the nation indicates. The Court is known to closely follow public opinion and it could not be clearer in this case. The two Justices to watch are Anthony Kennedy, the "swing" justice who wrote the pro-gay majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, and Chief Justice John Roberts, a legacy-oriented justice whose lesbian cousin will attend Tuesday's hearing and who already bucked his conservative bloc in voting to uphold Obamacare in 2012. Regardless though of what happens at the Court, the gay rights movement has already won. "The political debate on gay marriage is over," read a Washington Post headline last week, while Jeffrey Toobin, the famed legal analyst, declared that there is no question that the "country will never go back to where it was" on these issues. Less than a decade ago, such statements would have been unthinkable for the LGBT community. Their devotion to this effort and the dramatic change in public thinking that that push for equality caused - marked by the evolution of millions of Americans and the President who leads them - is no small feat. For decades, the gay rights movement has yearned for "equal protection under the law." In advancing this cause and succeeding, they've forged a commendable journey worthy of a great nation and its promise of liberty for all. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The President, the Sequester, and the Republican Party

(PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during a White House press conference on March 1, 2013.) 

Some very unusual things are happening in Washington right now. Despite no significant legislation related to a major policy goal or priority making it to President Obama's desk since his reelection, the president is enjoying his best job approval rating since September 2009. Since early last fall, Obama has been consistently polling between 50-55 percent in almost all major public opinion polling. Although the president did sign into law Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans (a popular signature promise of two campaigns), Obama's party has been unable to move the needle so far on climate change legislation, immigration reform, or gun control. On the other hand, when Obama was accumulating huge legislative successes such as health care reform and Wall Street reform in 2010, the president's approval rating hovered in the high 40s. 

Typically, conventional political wisdom would inform us that it should be the reverse: presidents usually do better when they successfully achieve their policy goals that they ran on while not doing politically so well when there is a stalemate or perpetual gridlock in DC. The reasons for this strange development are myriad. The central reasons are that the economy is currently doing far better - by all measures - than it was in 2010, when unemployment still hovered around 9 percent, the president's GOP opponents on Capitol Hill are widely unpopular, and the specific proposals touted by Obama right now are quite popular. Another unusual development is taking place too though. The Republican Party - a party that has advocated since the 1980 election for essentially gutting elements of the New Deal and Great Society - is refusing to accept a Democratic President's offer of cutting future Social Security benefits and means-testing Medicare because the president, a popular leader recently comfortably reelected, insists on additional revenue financed by closing unpopular tax loopholes, a solution to deficit reduction that the GOP's last presidential nominee and patron saint Ronald Reagan both advocated. So what is the consequence of this and why is this happening? 

First, the effects of weird things are always: more weirdness.  As a consequence of the sequester debate, Obama has been winning the political battle even though he is presiding over a mess in Washington, has proposed cutting the popular Social Security program, and did actually sign the sequester into law as a future threat. This is not to say that the mess is his fault. It isn't. The Republican House took the debt ceiling hostage in the summer of 2011 and demanded that raising the ceiling be tied to spending cuts -- thus giving us continued fights such as the fiscal cliff debacle and the sequester showdown. If there is any blame to be laid on Obama's doorstep it is that he did sign into law the Budget Control Act of 2011, legislation that included the sequester as cuts that would take place if the congressional super committee never reached a deal (they didn't). Further, the president imprudently said in November 2011 that he would veto "any" effort to undo the automatic cuts. Clearly positioning himself as a deficit hawk in a politically tumultuous time for him and his party in 2011, Obama had two primary goals at that time: 1) figure out a way to avoid destroying the world economy by giving the GOP at least some of what it wanted and 2) appearing to be tough on the deficit after the Democratic Party's "shellacking," in his words, in the 2010 midterms in part thanks to the perception of out-of-control DC spending. Nearly two years later, Obama is now championing the values of activist government by waging an aggressive, enthusiastic PR war on the sequester as "dumb, arbitrary" and dangerous cuts that would severely harm services crucial to millions of Americans and put many middle-class federal workers out of a job. 

Although he is proposing a deeply unpopular idea that would cut future Social Security benefits - chained CPI - as a bargaining chip for the Republicans to accept in favor of more revenue, Obama has largely sung a more progressive tune since winning reelection. Good. The president is right: the cuts would do terrible damage to things like Head Start, energy assistance for low-income families, aid for student loans, and national service programs. His basic proposition of avoiding the cuts is not only the right thing to do but it is also politically advantageous. Clearly, Obama is winning the political optics of this sequester fight. In the last two weeks, he appeared in front of federal law enforcement agents and a defense shipyard to make the (correct) case that the sequester would be perilous for the economy.  One would imagine that the president winning the argument politically would lead the GOP to cave. 

In following with the theme of weirdness permeating Washington, that has not been the case. The Republican leadership in Congress has not budged despite Obama's conciliatory offers. At first glance, it is indeed strange. The president is offering chained CPI, an idea that Senator Mitch McConnell reportedly begged to sneak into the fiscal cliff deal at the last second, and means-testing Medicare -- another idea that McConnell has publicly praised. In exchange, Obama is asking for the Republicans to give a little on additional revenue. They have refused. A conventional political observer may think that the GOP is insane and killing their political fortunes by staking such a wildly unpopular and truly radical governing position. Further, the Republican message on the sequester has been all over the place. McConnell insists the cuts are 'modest,' House Speaker John Boehner says they need to be avoided, some in the party's House caucus love the cuts because they represent the kind of deficit hawkishness they adore, and, the favorite response of most of the GOP caucus, is this: "it's a failure of leadership from Obama!!!!" A party known for its message discipline is all over the place while refusing to accept the changes they have long craved for entitlement programs. It is, in a word, weird. However, a closer examination of their strategy reveals what the true motive is behind their recalcitrance.

Think about it for a second: if the GOP House continues to bog Obama down in these never-ending fights over government shutdowns, the debt ceiling, automatic spending cuts, etc., what will come of government? Nothing productive. The president will be unable to achieve what he wants to accomplish on gun control, immigration, climate change, election reform, and raising the minimum wage -- because Congress will be too busy dealing with these "manufactured crises," to use Obama's language. That is part of the Republican Party's real goal. Does the GOP really care about the deficit and the debt? If they did, perhaps they would have supported Obamacare because the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the law would reduce the long-term budget deficit. If they did, perhaps they would have opposed President Bush's profligate spending throughout his two terms - including an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit, unpaid for $1.3 trillion tax cut skewed toward the wealthy, an unpaid for war in Iraq, unpaid for No Child Left Behind, and other massive spending bills. They didn't though. All of Bush's major policy items of his first six years in office were passed with almost all congressional Republicans on board. What the GOP leadership in Congress - the most loyal supporters of big-spender George W. Bush during his presidency - is truly focused on is threefold. It is this: 1) tarnishing the Obama legacy (fueled in part by a dislike of the president), 2) stalling his progressive agenda (because they genuinely oppose it on ideological grounds), and 3) hoping that the public will get so tired of the bickering that they'll again see Washington as inherently dysfunctional thus validating the GOP's message that 'government does not work'....and leading to a Republican presidential victory in 2016. Those goals, on which it is clear the GOP is focused on, are part of why there is gridlock and a Republican resistance to Obama's offers. 

In addition to aiming to accomplish those goals, the party is also hoping that elements of the centrist Beltway establishment media  - continually obsessed with lamenting about why Obama is not "bold" on the deficit and cutting entitlements and why he doesn't "sit down in a room with the GOP and broker a Reagan/O'Neill-type deal" - will help them portray Obama as obsessed with tax increases and not committed to deficit reduction. In the process, the GOP is banking on the fact that they can convince the debt-obssesed media to communicate to the deficit-weary public that President Obama - despite offering *chained CPI* and means-testing Medicare and already signing into law $2 trillion in spending cuts- is not "serious" about cutting spending. It might just work. A new poll reported by Business Insider found that only *six* percent of Americans answered correctly that the federal budget deficit is going down, not increasing. 

Further, while it is true that the GOP Leadership in Congress has some vested interest in the national political image of the party and the outcome of the 2016 election, it's important to ask this question: does much of the GOP caucus and its members truly care about the short-term national political consequences? Perhaps not. The current Republican majority in the House is only in the majority because of gerrymandering at the state legislative level after the 2010 midterm elections. Indeed, collectively, Democratic candidates for the House won more popular votes nationwide than Republican candidates. Most of the GOP House members are focused on their individual gerrymandered conservative districts where if they are caught even talking to Obama or considering negotiating with him on revenue, they're politically dead. These Republicans are far more worried about primary challengers back home than they are about the national party's political image across the country. It should be worth noting too that many of these Tea Party Republicans in the House actually do like the sequester, voted for it, and want to see spending cuts like these eviscerate government services. This explains part of the gridlock as well. 

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the President's motives for a) proposing entitlement reforms that his party largely opposes and b) being politically omnipotent on the sequester are clear. By offering changes to Social Security and Medicare, President Obama can successfully portray himself as a reasonable, moderate, compromising leader willing to give in order to get. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post and Joan Walsh of have even posited that Obama is not truly serious about following through with these cuts and that he proposes them only so as to appear conciliatory while knowing that the GOP has become so radical that they will not accept them because of Obama's insistence on more revenue. Perhaps. If that is the case, this argument plays into the hand of the Republicans in a way - by backing up their assertion that the President is not actually focused on shaving entitlements. 

Nevertheless, Obama's proposal doesn't just appear moderate. It is moderate. The White House has laid out on their website exactly what the President is calling for in clear detail - a balanced mix of spending cuts, including a major change to Social Security, and more revenue and the Republican House could technically accept the offer and a deal would be underway. Ultimately though, there is no question that politics is part of Obama's motivation in making this offer. Yes, it is true that chained CPI is unpopular with the public. However, by proposing it, Obama can successfully portray himself to moderate voters as a compromiser willing to negotiate with a right-wing opposition. By staking out a massive PR campaign against the sequester, the President is able to counterbalance that image of moderation with an image of being an advocate for an activist government -- thus appeasing his party and actually, the majority of Americans. It is smart politics. 

Ultimately, what will be the end result of all of this back and forth anyway? Will the fights over spending, the debt ceiling, showdowns over government shutdowns, and the like define Washington for the next two years or will there eventually be major legislation passed in this session of Congress? It remains to be seen if the gridlock can magically be broken, if the sequester can be averted, or if the government will continue to stay open and pay its bills. For now, we will have to deal with the current wacky weirdness of Washington while, importantly, quietly working to win back the House in 2014.