Obama and DOMA

Matt has been bugging me to write something about the Obama administration’s decision to stop defending DOMA in court.

I just don’t consider it as big a deal as some other people seem to, for a few reasons.

One, contrary to what Newt Gingrich says, the administration is not suspending enforcement of the law. The law is still in place.

Two, we’re not talking about all of DOMA. We’re talking only about Section 3. If Section 3 is declared unconstitutional, the federal government has to recognize same-sex marriages performed in any state that allows them, but it doesn’t do anything about states that don’t allow them. Okay, that’s still a big step. But it’s not everything.

Three, the House can still step in to file a brief defending DOMA in court, and even if it doesn’t, independent organizations can always file amicus briefs putting forth their positions on the matter, and the court can take heed.

The ultimate decision-maker on this issue — barring DOMA repeal by Congress, which won’t happen anytime soon — will be the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court will do what the Supreme Court will do, no matter what any lawyer argues. It’s become a judicial cliché that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the only one that matters, but in this case it’s true. Although Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan were not on the Court the last time it decided a major gay rights case — Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 — we can be pretty sure where they’ll line up. Kennedy’s the wild card.

Yet in an intangible way, the administration’s decision is important. Obama is using the bully pulpit of the presidency to make a statement in favor of gay rights, and any time the topic is raised for debate, more people become convinced of the arguments in favor of equality.

It’s just a matter of time.

Obama the Rationalizer

You could see Obama furiously spinning the tax cut deal in his press conference yesterday: it’s a necessary compromise! This country is built on compromise!

I’m getting tired of Obama always telling us he deserves points for compromise, as if compromise were the only option. Of course compromise is the only option if you never fight for anything in the first place. It’s one thing to compromise after you’ve been negotiating with someone for a long time; it’s another thing to signal before you even begin negotiating that you’re willing to compromise with an opposition who is not willing to do the same.

What did the country get out of this? What did Republicans give up? The Republicans gave in on unemployment benefits, which they would eventually have conceded anyway. It was just a bargaining position. They know how to negotiate; the Obama White House does not.

I am so tired of this.

Obama thinks he’s such a masterful leader. But he’s not. True leaders think creatively. They look at the chessboard and say, how can I rearrange all these pieces to achieve my goals? If they don’t like the chessboard, they create a new one. They make up new rules and get other people to agree to them. Obama should be on prime-time TV every night, telling the American people why the Republicans are wrong and he is right. The Republicans want to block unemployment benefits? Fine — Obama should go on TV and say, Look at what the Republicans are doing, and all because they refuse to make rich people pay the same tax rates they paid during the Clinton era. They claim they’re concerned about the deficit and yet they have no way to pay the $900 billion cost of these continued tax cuts.

Obama doesn’t do any of that. He’s completely passive. He never even tries to fight. Over and over again, the Democrats let Republicans frame the debate, even on issues where the Democrats have the more popular position. And over and over again, the White House negotiates against itself.

This White House is pathologically afraid of political combat. It’s so afraid of poisoning the political well, when actually, nobody cares about the damn political well. People don’t care about political discourse; they just want results. You can turn off the TV or close the newspaper, but you can’t turn off your economic situation.

Obama just cares about things that most people don’t really care about. He needs to come back down here to Earth where the rest of us are.

The Relevant President


After the 1994 midterm elections that wiped out Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and gave us House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton was reduced to pleading pathetically to the media that he, as president, was still relevant to the political conversation.

How long after the 1994 midterm elections did this happen?

(a) November 1994, a few days after the election.

(b) January 1995, shortly after the Republicans took formal control of Congress.

(c) Not until April 1995.

Answer: (c). It was not until the evening of April 18, 1995 — more than five months after the election — that President Clinton said the following in a prime-time press conference — a conference that two of the major news networks declined to cover:

The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last 2 years and the things we’re trying to do to implement it give it relevance. The President is relevant here, especially an activist President. And the fact that I am willing to work with the Republicans. The question is, are they willing to work with me?

Rhetorically, it was seen as one of the low points of his presidency — having to appeal to the Constitution for his relevance — even though it contained the seeds of his return to public favor.

What’s the point? The point is, give Obama time. Clinton floundered for months after the Republicans took over. He let them overplay their hand. It wasn’t really until a year after the midterms — the government shutdown of late 1995 — that Clinton really got his mojo back.

(Of course, the government shutdown also enabled him to meet a young intern named Monica Lewinsky, so it wasn’t a total plus.)

Incidentally, guess what happened the day after that infamous press conference? The Oklahoma City bombing. Tragic as that event was, it allowed Clinton to play a role the public likes to see in its presidents: chief comforter and expounder of the nation’s grief.

Now, history never repeats itself exactly. Despite what Mitch McConnell seems to think, he is still going to be the Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, which will deprive Obama of a foil that Clinton had in Majority Leader Bob Dole. It’s not clear whether the economy will come back in the next two years, it’s not clear whether Obama has the political acumen of Bill Clinton, and it’s not clear whether John Boehner will overplay his hand like Newt Gingrich did. We’ll see.

This week’s election results give me hope, in a way, because they point the way to Obama’s re-election. He’s not automatically going to get re-elected; several different things will have to go right.

But there’s certainly a very good chance of it.

The Quotable Gail Collins

I continue to love Gail Collins:

Unfortunately, [Mississippi governor Haley Barbour] followed up his bow to tolerance by suggesting that the public’s confusion over Barack Obama’s religion is because of the fact that “this is a president that we know less about than any other president in history.” The governor claimed that Americans had been particularly deprived of information on Obama’s youth, while they knew a great deal about the formative years of the other chief executives all the way back to the way the youthful George Washington “chopped down a cherry tree.”

Let us reconsider the above paragraph in light of the fact that while Obama wrote an entire book about his childhood, Washington never chopped down the cherry tree.

The First Amendment

Not that I want to discuss the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan again, but I’ve been bothered by the idea that Obama somehow contradicted himself the other day when he clarified his comments regarding it.

Here’s what he said in his first remarks:

As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.

Here’s what he said the next day:

My intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion. I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

A bit wishy-washy? Maybe. Contradictory? No.

The First Amendment is about the powers of the government. It begins:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The First Amendment restricts the power of Congress (and, through incorporation, the power of state governments). It says nothing at all about the actions or opinions of citizens. I think the creators of Park51 are completely justified in building the cultural center on the site they’ve chosen, and at this point I think they would be caving in to disgusting bigotry to build it elsewhere. On the basis of stubborn principle, they should build it wherever the hell they want.

But I also think it’s possible to disagree with this while still supporting the First Amendment.

Simply put, it’s impossible for a citizen to violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is about the power of government. Just because you think there should be no law preventing the cultural center from being built in lower Manhattan doesn’t mean you can’t oppose it personally. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think those who oppose it are completely misguided, or uninformed, or opportunistic. But are they contradicting or violating the First Amendment? No.

In fact, on Rachel Maddow’s show the other night, Chris Hayes was the guest host, and he made hay out of some Republicans’ apparently contradictory statements that “yes, yes, we support the First Amendment but come on, it’s a really bad idea to build this cultural center in lower Manhattan.” How is this a contradiction?

I can see how it could be perceived as such. Yes, the First Amendment’s religion clauses are about the power of government, but read more broadly, they are a national declaration of principle, a declaration of an American ideal; they proclaim our obligation to collectively tolerate the rights of religious minorities to freely practice their religion wherever they wish.

So I understand where this is coming from. Some people are disappointed in Obama because they wanted a ringing, unambiguous declaration of religious freedom. Hell, Democrats want a ringing, unambiguous declaration from Obama about something. Meanwhile, the yahoos in the media love harping on any misstatement or apparent contradiction they can find, because it makes for a story.

So yes. Once again, our ploddingly professorial president has overestimated the intelligence of the American people and muddled his message. But did he contradict himself?

… sort of.

The “Ground Zero” “Mosque”

I’m so tired of hearing about this “mosque” (in reality: Islamic community center that contains a mosque, among other things) two blocks from Ground Zero. It’s a building that nobody who visits Ground Zero will even see, since it’s not at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away.

And it’s great and all that Obama spent some political capital supporting religious freedom. I completely agree with him that an Islamic group has every right to build a community center wherever the hell it wants. But it would be nice if he spent some political capital on things that most Americans care about: jobs and the economy. When was the last time he gave a major White House speech on the economy and job creation? It’s not like there’s nothing he can do about it. If he grew some balls and proposed a job creation program, at least we’d have something constructive to talk about. Because the country will talk about whatever the president wants to talk about, as we can see.

And apparently what the president wants to talk about are these wonderful intellectual ideals instead of the meat-and-potatoes issues that are important to most people.

Bob Herbert is right:

President Obama missed his opportunity early last year to rally the public behind a call for shared sacrifice and a great national mission to rebuild the United States in a way that would create employment for millions and establish a gleaming new industrial platform for the great advances of the 21st century.

It would have taken fire and imagination, but the public was poised to respond to bold leadership. If the Republicans had balked, and they would have, the president had the option of taking his case to the people, as Truman did in his great underdog campaign of 1948.

Obama sucks as a leader. I am so tired of his inaction and timidity.

Be a fucking leader, god dammit.

Maybe we would have been better off with Hillary Clinton after all.

Obama in the Village

President Obama visited the West Village the other day. Apparently blogger Hi-Fi Bri lives on the same street as Anna Wintour, who hosted the president for dinner. So Bri has done a write-up about being in lockdown, including some photos, starting here and continuing in subsequent entries. Neato.

Dems, Attack!

I love this letter in the NY Times today:

To the Editor:

The Sherrod affair has unfortunately confirmed my suspicion of the Obama administration: it has no backbone.

The administration seems not to realize that American politics is a contact sport, not a cerebral exercise. An attack demands an immediate counterattack. Smearing Shirley Sherrod was an attack; firing her was not a counterattack, it was a misguided attempt at damage control.

The Democratic position on virtually every issue (including, or especially, the economy) is far stronger than the opposition’s, but the administration’s defense of its policies is tepid at best.

The Sherrod affair shows that the right keeps on attacking, even when it is wrong, and the left keeps on retreating, even when it is right. For this Democratic president and this Democratic Congress, this is not a formula for success.

Charles T. Grant
Minneapolis, July 22, 2010


Obama and Blackness

Homer said in a comment on my last post, about why the tea-partiers don’t like Barack Obama:

You forgot to mention Obama is black. That is really the problem. All the rest of the crap is just sorta random whining and sound bites. The tea partiers “Want our Country Back” because they never, ever imagined one of the black guys would be running it.

Actually, I think it’s more complicated. They don’t dislike him because he’s black, or at least not just because he’s black. They dislike him because he defies categorization. He has a white mother but a black father. And his father wasn’t an American but a Kenyan. And he lived in Indonesia for much of his childhood. And his first name has origins in Swahili and (OMG) Arabic. And his middle name is Arabic and is the same as the last name of that guy who Bush said had WMDs. And his last name doesn’t sound ‘merican.

Kenyan father, Indonesian childhood, a name with multiple foreign origins. What do they do with all of that? At least “Jesse Jackson” is pronounceable, and his ancestors were American slaves. They know what box to put him in. They know all about black people — they have generations of stereotypes about black people to fall back on. But what about that Obama guy? What box do we put him in? How are we gonna stereotype him if we don’t know what box to put him in? Obviously he must be hiding something. Kinda shifty and suspicious! At least black people are American. This guy doesn’t even seem American!

That’s the mentality, as far as I see it.

Tea Party Contradictions

I have to admit, I’m a little confused as to what the tea partiers want. They blame Obama for bailing out the banks even though Obama wasn’t the president who bailed out the banks. And they blame Obama for doing this while at the same time they call him a socialist. So I guess he’s not a socialist, exactly; he’s… a corporatist-socialist? He’s in cohorts with American big business, while at the same time he wants to destroy it?

There’s an unresolved love-hate relationship with capitalism going on here. It’s been like this ever since the American Puritans decided that working hard and becoming financially secure was the only way to show that they had been saved by God, while at the same time issuing jeremiads against the prosperity they themselves had created.

Capitalism’s great, but along with the good stuff, there’s some not-so-good stuff, too. Ultimately, capitalism is about money, not morality, as the Puritans might have hoped. If you have capitalism, you will have Family Guy and wardrobe malfunctions, because people like to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs and that’s what sells. In fact, the people who like to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs are — gasp — the very same people who say it’s bad to laugh at dirty jokes and look at boobs. No wonder we’ve got a problem. People don’t know what they think about something as personal as sexuality; how can they know what they think about capitalism?

People want to live in a world where they have the freedom to get rich, and then they get mad when other people get rich instead. That’s why they can simultaneously believe that Obama both loves and hates big business; it’s because they do, too.

In the war of Big Evil Government versus Big Evil Corporate Banks, whose side do they take? Thinking about this would make their heads explode. But it’s not even that simple. Sometimes Big Evil Government is on the same side as Big Evil Corporate Banks, and sometimes not. Because sometimes what’s good for the big corporations is good for the little guy, and sometimes it’s not.

There are no clear “sides” here. There’s a spectrum. And Obama is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He doesn’t want to destroy the capitalist system; he just wants to soften its rough edges. There are so many people who don’t seem to understand this. They prefer a simpler world where they can have enemies.

It’s frustrating to listen to all the ranting.

Stevens to Retire; Appoint a Woman!

So, there it is… Justice Stevens is retiring at the end of this term, the day after the Supreme Court begins its summer recess.

First, some geekery. His retirement date means that he’ll just miss becoming the second-longest serving justice in Supreme Court history, as I speculated last fall, since the Court will most likely recess on June 28. Even if the Court recesses on July 1 — which is not likely and might happen only if there are too many decisions to announce at the end of the term — Stevens would retire on July 2, and thus tie Stephen Field as the second-longest serving justice. Right now Stevens ranks fourth; 41 days from now he’ll surpass the legendary John Marshall to become third.

I’m sure he doesn’t care about any of that stuff, though. Only geeks like me do.

Now the speculation begins on a successor. And I really, really want Obama to nominate another woman.

It’s ridiculous that in the year 2010, only two of the nine justices are women. Bush tried to nominate a woman to replace O’Connor — Harriet Miers — but when her nomination failed, he nominated Sam Alito, leaving Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman on the Court. Obama did the right thing in choosing a woman to replace Souter, and Stevens’s replacement should be a woman as well.

Demographics should be secondary to a Supreme Court nomination, but when a president is looking for someone of a particular ideology or judicial temperament, there are usually several people to choose from, so he has the leeway to choose another woman. Fortunately, it looks like the name with the most buzz for the last couple of months has been Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Several weeks ago, SCOTUSblog profiled her, as well as a few other contenders, and considered her the front runner.

But this is interesting — if she were nominated and confirmed, the Supreme Court would have six Catholics and three Jews. Would fundamentalist Protestants be annoyed at having no representation? After all, to quote that link, “it’s not like having devout Catholics on the bench is a substitute for having a couple of Protestants, any more than having a Clarence Thomas on the bench is the same as having an African-American.”

The Supreme Court is problematic today — a small group of nine people can enact major change in this country, for better or for worse. Perhaps a larger court would be better, and not just because it would dilute the identity politics somewhat. (The Constitution doesn’t say there have to be nine justices — all it takes is an act of Congress, although the last time a president tried to make that happen, it didn’t work out.)

Of course, even in a larger body — the current United States Senate — only 17 out of 100 members are women. But given the infrequency with which the Supreme Court membership turns over, change comes even more slowly to that body.

Even three out of nine justices would be too few women on the Court. But it would help redress a great annoyance.

Health Care Passes

Until the number “216” appeared on the screen last night, I wasn’t totally convinced it was going to happen. The fifteen minutes of voting were winding down and the tally was growing more slowly than I’d expected and I wondered if some Democrats were going to change their minds at the last minute.

But it really happened. Holy shit.

The Democrats have passed health care reform.

They did it!

If you had told me two months ago, after Scott Brown’s election and the Democratic disarray that followed, that we’d actually get here, I don’t think I would have believed it. I was depressed about politics and I was so sure that the wimpy Democrats would cave in like they usually did.

The turning point, I think, happened just ten days after Scott Brown’s election, when Obama met with Republicans in Baltimore and the session was televised live at the White House’s request. It was a great psychological boost for the Democrats — it was bold, it was different, and it showed that the Republicans in Congress were intellectually bankrupt and that Obama was not cowed. It was a prelude to the bipartisan session at Blair House a month later, where Obama was able to say to the Republicans: Look, many of the things in this bill are ideas that your party supported 15 years ago. You don’t want single-payer? There’s no single-payer. You don’t want a public option? There’s no public option. I’m willing to work with you, but you’re not willing to work with me. His performance gave congressional Democrats the leadership that Nancy Pelosi had insisted upon.

One of the things I admire most in Barack Obama is his capacity to learn from mistakes. He exercised poor leadership on health care last summer and fall, letting the debate go to Crazytown, and it cost him; had he taken greater charge of the debate, this health care bill might have had a public option, which will now have to wait for a future date. But he exercised much stronger leadership in the last two months, when everyone thought health care reform was dead. You could say it’s a wash: had he been a stronger leader back then, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard to save the plan. Would things have been different under Hillary Clinton, who said that we couldn’t afford to have a president who needed to learn on the job? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m so gratified to have a president who does know how to learn, a president who has flexibility and tenacity in equal measure. I’d rather have a president who learns on the job than one who thinks there’s nothing worth learning.

And Nancy Pelosi deserves great credit, too. I watched her closing speech last night and, to be honest, it was pretty dreadful. The Speaker is, ironically, not a very good speaker. But she’s apparently great behind the scenes, because she managed to hold a majority together with a few votes to spare.

As for the silly executive order that won over Bart Stupak and his caucus — an executive order that basically says that the law is the law — it seems like something out of The West Wing. I could just see Toby and Josh and Sam arguing with each other about how to win over the votes of these intransigent House members, and then Donna walks in and says something seemingly unrelated, and then a light bulb slowly goes on above Josh’s head as the camera closes in on him.

This really has been the stuff of high drama. But it’s not just about politics. This bill is going to do a great deal of good for millions of people. It’s the most significant social legislation Congress has passed in decades.

Obama just became a consequential president.

The Sixties at 50

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth’s sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four black students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to leave without being served. While these were not the first sit-ins, they were the most famous, and they quickly spread across the South, and inspired a young generation of civil rights activists. Today, February 1, 2010, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum is opening in Greensboro.

This reminds me of something I was going to write about a month ago but forgot: for the next ten years we will be observing the 50th anniversary of the 1960s. The sit-ins (2010); the building of the Berlin Wall (2011); the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012); the JFK assassination (2013); the Beatles in America (2014); the sending of American ground forces to Vietnam (2015); the premieres of Batman and Star Trek on TV (2016); the Summer of Love (2017); the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (2018); the moon landing (2019). For the next decade it will be one 50th anniversary after another, as the Baby Boomers relive everything that was important to their youth and the rest of us commemorate a pivotal decade.

It’s fun to relive history at the same speed as it happened. For some reason I remember the 50th anniversary of the 1937 opening of the Lincoln Tunnel, commemorated in 1987, when I was 13. At that age I was an avid comic book reader, and I associated the late 1930s with the golden age of comic books (Superman and Batman first appeared in 1938 and 1939, respectively). I remember waiting to drive into the Lincoln Tunnel with my parents, its massive, vaguely Art-Deco edifice looming before us, and imagining that it was the late 1930s and we were driving into crime-ridden Gotham City, just as Bruce Wayne and his parents drove into the city on that fateful night. It seemed like a dark, depressing time and place.

But 23 years have passed since 1987, just as 23 years passed between 1937 and 1960. If I had been born in 1923 instead of 1973, I would be reading about the sit-ins happening right now, and I would be thinking back to when I grew up during the Great Depression. Since the time I was 14, we’ve observed the 50th anniversaries of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the creation of the UN, the birth of TV Guide, the Army-McCarthy hearings, Sputnik. Had I been born 50 years ago, I would remember those actual events, not just the 50th anniversaries of those events.

And this year you can follow a Twitter feed re-enacting JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign in honor of its 50th anniversary. Which makes me think: something like Twitter would have been incomprehensible 50 years ago. What kind of technology will we use to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of the big events of our time, like 9/11 or Obama’s election? Will we have holodecks or brain implants that will let us stand in Grant Park and watch Obama speak on Election Night, or experience Hurricane Katrina or the Beijing Olympics?

Our history was someone else’s current events, just as our current events are someone else’s history.

Greenwald on Alito

Glenn Greenwald criticizes Alito’s conduct:

The Justices are seated at the very front of the chamber, and it was predictable in the extreme that the cameras would focus on them as Obama condemned their ruling. Seriously: what kind of an adult is incapable of restraining himself from visible gestures and verbal outbursts in the middle of someone’s speech, no matter how strongly one disagrees — let alone a robe-wearing Supreme Court Justice sitting in the U.S. Congress in the middle of a President’s State of the Union address? Recall all of the lip-pursed worrying from The New Republic‘s Jeffrey Rosen and his secret, nameless friends over the so-called “judicial temperament” of Sonia Sotomayor. Alito’s conduct is the precise antithesis of what “judicial temperament” is supposed to produce.

Obama and Alito

I’m glad Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision in his State of the Union address last night. It was great political theater — Roberts, Kennedy and Alito sitting there stonefaced as everyone around them stood up and applauded the criticism. Um, awkward.

In response to one of Obama’s criticisms, Alito mouthed, “No way. Not true.” He probably didn’t realize the camera was on him — I doubt he would have muttered openly to himself otherwise.

(Oh, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg looked like she was asleep during half the speech.)

Now, I’ve read a couple of random blog comments from people who say it was “classless” for Obama to criticize the Supreme Court to their faces, or something like that. But that’s nonsense. It was perfectly appropriate for Obama to criticize a judgment of the Court. Despite the robes, Supreme Court justices are not gods; they’re a branch of the federal government, like Congress. If the President can criticize Congress, he can criticize a Supreme Court decision.

I really like this take on the matter and wish I had written it:

The Supremes are used to wafting into the House in their black robes, sitting dispassionately through the speech and wafting ethereally out again on a cloud of apolitical rectitude. It’s like they forget they’re there because they’re one of the three branches. And I truly don’t think it ever occured to them that crassly injecting themselves into the sordid partisan fray of what they like to call “the political branches” with that catastrophic decision would cause the President to treat them like people who’d injected themselves into the sordid partisan fray. (And why should they? After all, they got away with Bush v. Gore with barely a dent in their credibility). I even thought I detected a bit of “told you” coming from the four in the minority.

Prop 8 Trial Continues

During the Prop 8 trial, I’ve been following the Prop 8 Trial Tracker blog created by the Courage Campaign. It seems like our side has been putting on a great case, and the Prop 8 folks have been putting on a pretty lackluster case.

Of course, none of this really matters, because even if Judge Walker rules in our favor, and even if the Ninth Circuit upholds that decision, this will eventually wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Kennedy will be the deciding vote. No matter how rational our side’s arguments are, we’ll never get the votes of Roberts, Scalia, Thomas or Alito.

It’s really unclear what side Kennedy would be on. He’s written a couple of seminal pro-gay decisions — Romer and Lawrence. But what would he think about the validity of marriage equality?

No matter what happens in the Supreme Court, though, this trial has been a net plus. While I don’t know how much publicity the trial has had since the first week, it can only change people’s minds in favor of equality. I seriously doubt it would turn anyone againstmarriage equality who wasn’t already opposed.

Even if we lose in the Supreme Court, that’s not so bad. The Court wouldn’t outlaw marriage equality; it would just leave everything up to the states, which is where we are now. And any state-based marriage case that involved the interpretation of a state’s constitution would be unaffected, because the U.S. Supreme Court has no legal say over how to interpret a state constitution.

There are some who say that an adverse decision in the Supreme Court would set back the cause of equality, but that’s not necessarily so. As last week’s campaign finance case shows, the Court has no compunction about overturning its own precedents, even if those precedents are less than ten years old.

So I think that whatever happens, this trial has been a net win.

There’s a Martin Luther King quote that Obama has often used in the last couple of years:

The arc of history is long… but it bends towards justice.

In the long run, we’re moving toward equality.

Political Grief

There have been a couple of nights in the past week when I’ve had trouble falling asleep. I’ve been anxious.

It’s not because of anything in my personal life. It’s because of tomorrow’s Senate race in Massachusetts.

It looks like Democrat Martha Coakley is going to lose to Republican Scott Brown. The Senate seat held for 47 years by Ted Kennedy — and held before him by his brother, John F. Kennedy — is probably going to go Republican. That seat hasn’t been Republican since JFK won it in 1952.

I am deeply, deeply upset that after months and months of debate, after all the angst, after all the arm-twisting and dealmaking, after all the grief, after the reform plan has approached death’s doorstep several times since August, only to keep surviving — after everything, after decades of waiting, we have, at long last, seen the House of Representatives pass a health care reform bill; and then, miracle of miracles, we have even seen the Senate — the United States Senate, where reform bills go to die! — pass a health care reform bill; after decades of effort, we are finally on the brink of passing health care reform; and now we are going to see it all fall apart, because Ted Kennedy — Ted Kennedy, of all people, whose life’s dream was to bring health insurance to millions of Amerians, who worked tirelessly for decades to achieve this goal — was taken away from us by brain cancer.

I have actually had trouble falling asleep because of this. Because I’ve been taking it personally.

It doesn’t make sense to take it personally. The death of health care reform wouldn’t affect me materially; my own health care coverage is fine.

But this bill could bring health care to 31 million Americans. I may be in decent financial shape, but millions of Americans are not. And I want this to be a country that gives aid to its citizens when they need it. It pains me that people die in this country because they can’t afford health insurance, that people come to financial ruin in this country because they get sick.

And I admit, my feelings go beyond altruism.

The thing is, human beings are clannish. We like to divide ourselves into tribes, whether it’s in support of religions, or nations, or political parties, or sports teams, or late-night TV stars, or supernatural creatures. If Massachusetts voters send a corporatist Republican to the Senate tomorrow, I will feel like I have been personally attacked. I know this is not rational. But it’s what I will feel. I will feel like millions of Americans are jeering and laughing at me. I will feel like they hate me. I will feel like my team has lost.

(And I don’t even live in Massachusetts.)

It pains me that health care reform could die. And it angers me that 59 votes is not enough to get things done in the Senate. Jon Stewart channeled my feelings tonight on The Daily Show: the Democrats have more Senate seats than the Republicans have had since 1923; George W. Bush was able to do all the damage he did to our country without ever having a supermajority in the Senate. (By Tuesday morning, the relevant Daily Show clip should be here. Update: here it is.)

Even if Brown wins, the House can still save reform. All it has to do is pass the bill that the Senate has already passed. The fear, though, is that Democrats will be quaking in their boots after Brown wins — because that’s what Democrats do best, quake in their boots — and give up on reform for fear of being voted out by a wrathful electorate in the fall.

But the House has until the end of the 111th Congress to pass the Senate bill. It can even wait until after the November 2010 elections and then pass the bill in a lame-duck session. Hey — if the Republican-controlled House could impeach Bill Clinton in a lame-duck session after losing seats, and not even be punished for it, the Democratic-controlled House can pass health care reform in December 2010.

But again: we’re talking about Democrats. Footwear, quaking.

In this instance I’ve decided to take Dan’s advice and expect the worst. The Massachusetts Senate seat is lost, and health care reform is probably lost. The only upside I can see is that maybe, maybe, the failure of health care reform will take away some of the Republicans’ ammunition as the economy slowly improves. Clinton’s health plan failed and then the Republicans took over Congress, and then they overreached, and Clinton was re-elected two years later. Maybe the failure of health care reform will improve Obama’s re-election prospects. I would rather have an ineffective Democrat in the White House than any Republican; better a holding pattern than active harm.

So I’ve decided to let it go. There is nothing I can do about it, so getting upset is pointless. And I shouldn’t take it as a personal repudiation. I haven’t failed; Martha Coakley has failed. The voters of Massachusetts don’t even know me.

I’m still going to be upset. But I’m also going to try and chill out about it.

For my own sanity.

Obama Has Me Feeling Down

For a while I’ve had the idea of writing a post from an alternate universe, where Hillary Clinton is president, and things are going horribly for the Democrats, and we all say, “Darn, if only we’d only elected Obama, things would be going so much better for us!”

I’m feeling down about politics again — Democrat Martha Coakley is in danger of losing her Senate race against Republican Scott Brown, in Massachusetts of all places. If Coakley loses, that leaves only 59 Democrats in the Senate, which means that health care is dead unless the House passes the Senate bill as is. (Or unless both houses get their shit together and vote on a compromise bill already. The Senate passed its bill three weeks ago! What’s taking them so long?)

In the past I’ve blamed Harry Reid for the Democrats’ problems. But I also blame Obama. Things should never have gotten to the point they did last summer, when the “death panel” rumor ran rampant. The New Yorker article on marriage equality that I linked to yesterday has a part that struck me, about Chad Griffin’s experiences working on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign:

But the Clinton “war room” remained Griffin’s model of how to make noise in the world. “Every single hour was strategic,” he recalled. “I was this little freakin’ kid hanging around watching Paul Begala and James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. They did not let the opposition gain an inch, and if it did they knocked it down with firepower.”

Can anyone describe the White House efforts at health care reform that way? No.

It’s funny. In 2008, all the anti-Obama people were saying, “Obama’s an idiot, he’s all flash and no substance, all he knows how to do is give a speech.” But in fact, that wasn’t true. I can’t remember where I read this, but there was an article in 2008 saying that Obama as a candidate actually started out really wonky and earthbound and uninspiring, and his campaign managers had to convince him to spice things up a bit, inspire people, use more poetry instead of prose. But now that he’s president, he seems to be just a policy wonk again. Candidate Obama was full of inspiration and hope, but President Obama is just boresville. He’s Calvin Coolidge.

Sometimes lately, I find myself wishing that Hillary Clinton had been elected president. But who’s to say that things would be better if she were in the White House? It’s tempting to say, “Darn, Hillary Clinton would have been a much better president than Obama! She would have kicked ass!” But there’s no way of knowing. She might have turned out to be a bad president: remember her disorganized primary campaign, her wooden speaking ability, the landing-in-Bosnia-under-fire thing. Could she have gotten health care legislation as far along as Obama has? I can just as easily see her overplaying her hand and screwing it up as I can see her intimidating the Republicans and keeping all the Democrats in line.

When we imagine that things would have been better only if things had turned out differently, it’s basically “hope” aimed in a different direction. “Regret” and “hope” are cousins. In each case, we’re imagining some alternative world where things are going much better than they are now: it’s either the future (hope) or an alternate universe (regret).

There are, of course, factors outside of Obama’s control here. If Ted Kennedy hadn’t gotten cancer, there would be no special election in Massachusetts to worry about right now. If tons of white people weren’t racist and xenophobic, there would be no Tea Party movement to deal with. But there’s a lot more Obama could have been doing these last few months other than being idealistic.

Anyway, there is nothing that I, myself, can do to change anything going on in politics right now. So I can continue to follow it and get depressed about it; or I can just ignore it, which isn’t going to happen, because I’m a politics junkie. Finally, there’s the third option, which is that I can continue to follow it and realize that there’s nothing I can do about it so there’s no point in getting depressed about it.

I will probably choose the last one.