Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

February 21, 2004

by J

Fear-Driven Democrats

For the last several years the Bush Administration has been treating cities and states like crap. At the same time, Republican rhetoric is all about diminishing the size and scope of the federal government, pushing issues back to the state (except for women's health and privacy issues, of course) and preaching about the virtues of the tyranny of the majority letting the people decide.

And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the people in America's local municipalities are looking at themselves and saying, "We have the power!" In San Francisco and in Sandoval County, New Mexico local officials are or plan to issue marriage licenses to gay people. Chicago's mayor has said he's for it. It might even be legal in New York.

I have yet to hear a clearly articulated reason that doesn't devolve into religious bigotry for being opposed to equal rights under the law. Congratulations to these local officials for standing up and doing the right thing. Now, if only the Democratic party and its leaders in Washington would do the same. Unfortunately, it seems to me that fear-driven political calculus will override leadership among the Democrats, as it so often does. Josh Marshall articulates this typically wishy-washy Democratic approach:
My reason for not supporting gay marriage -- and I think there's a difference between opposing and not supporting, in this case -- is that it seems like a step that would trigger a backlash that would a) quite possibly prevent the adoption even of civil unions and b) provide a tool for conservatives to win elections and thus prevent or turn back various other progressive reforms that are no less important than this one. (Of course, this hybrid reasoning has all manner of uncomfortable echoes from the middle decades of the 20th century.)

In other words, when I say that I don't support gay marriage, my reasoning and rationale are inextricably tied up with my sense of the larger political context in which the question arises -- what's possible and what's not, and what the larger political repercussions would be. In fact, I find the two parts of the equation difficult to untangle even in my own head. (If there's an undertone of uncertainty or moral awkwardness you recognize in this post it likely stems from my feeling that the open embrace of gay marriage from so many unexpected quarters shames what seems to me to be my own timidity.)
You should be ashamed, Josh. Constant political timidity on the part of the Democrats has resulted in all manner of terrible results, including the deaths of more than 500 American soldiers. Stand up, stand up, stand up! You, John Kerry! You, John Edwards! Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer! You, Hillary Clinton! Stand up for what's right and just and true to fundamental American values. I'm watching... waaaaiting... Where are the true American leaders today? They seem to be in our towns and cities. To borrow a phrase from Howard Dean, Democrats in Washington just have not got it going on. obe over in a Calpundit thread said it better than me:
Dear lord. This reasoning captures, in my view, exactly what the dems better not do: take a wishy washy muddled position on a defining moral and legal issue, taken not because it is right or wrong, but out of calculation on what will do the least harm or the most good politically. That's how many justified their capitulation on the iraq vote, and the tax cuts and the patriot act, etc. And it's what pisses dem voters off to no end. We stand for nothing but trying (with terrible results) to get elected and do not have the guts or the moral fortitude to lead.
The DNC blog, for example, criticizes Tom Delay for his hatefulness, but doesn't take a stand on the issue. Criticism is just the first step. Stand up for what's right. Remember, people hunger and thirst for leadership. The Democrats could show some real leadership -- Howard Dean showed them the way. Instead, citizens are left with Dubya who conveys the impression of resolve, but of course is heading in the entirely wrong direction. This is an opportunity, Democrats; why, oh why, do I suspect that you're going to blow it. Again.
Posted by J at February 21, 2004 08:29 AM

The criticism of Dems is spot on in terms of their criticism of DeLay, for example, without exhibiting the hutzpah to take a stand themselves. That's a general issue that I have with the Dems.

That said... I don't support Gay Marriage. To my way of looking at it "gay marriage" would be akin to legally defining men as women or vice versa. I can very easily get myself arrested for walking into a women's restroom in just about any place in America. Sure, I'd probably have to act up a bit too in order to get arrested. But, the point is that I am a "man" and my not being welcome in a woman's restroom doesn't mean that I'm somehow being descriminated against. I can and would support civil unions that grant comparable rights to same-sex couples. Just don't call it "marriage" because it's not, any more than I am a woman.

My Liberal girlfriend and I have discussed this issue at length. She favors gay marriage, btw. But, she proposes a solution that actually makes a lot of sense from a libertarian perspective - get the government completely out of the business of marriage. Then, anyone who wants to get the sanction of a clergy on their relationship can do so provided the clergy is willing. Let people get whatever spiritual sanction/solace they see fit - that would be the ultimate freedom of conscience and it gets the government out of the business of dictating any one particular brand of morality.

Meanwhile, I see no reason why the tax codes ought to give a break to a couple, regardless of sexual-orientation, simply because they are "married". Especially considering the fact that there are a lot of long-term couples (both hetero and gay) who exhibit arguably greater personaly morality (think Brittany Spears or even Newt Gingrich) but get no tax break because they are not "married".

I would propose restricting any "family" tax break to the presence of children - if you've got a kid or kids, you get a tax break. If not... you don't. Simple. Clean. No morality dictating involved at all. As Srg. Friday used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Posted by: Kevin @ TIV at February 21, 2004 11:17 AM

Reading a post by Kevin@TIV lets you know exactly why you are right, J. Legally defining men as women? Whatever.

You're right about the Democrats, sadly. But I think there's a second part there that's a little bit more disturbing.
Forget us Democrats for a minute, spineless though we may be. I think that the reason we won't stand up and do the right thing on this -- though we should -- is because we recognize that most of America is independently minded, leaning conservative, and that granting gay marriage somehow takes something away from the "mainstream" families out there. It's utterly ridiculous, of course, but it's why Democrats act the way they act. No, let's not do anything that may be moderately unpopular, let's not work to make all Americans truly equal: you're gay. You're not allowed to be like me.
Democrats have good pollsters, are able to read this unfortunate American temperment, and act on it. It's foolish, and I'll be proud of my party affiliation again when we stop drifting any way the wind blows.

I support gay marriage on two levels -- and it is at least a two level issue. First, on a personal level, if two people love each other, they ought to have everything I, a straight man, am entitled to under the law. Whether two men get married, two women get married or a man and a woman get married takes nothing away from me. And on the issue of morality, I damn sure ain't Mr. Morality; I can barely keep my own nose clean, much less worry about a bunch of other folks who may or may not be sinning.
On the political front. Has nobody noticed the similarities to, say, the mid-1960s? Remember when African American people had to go to different schools? Eat at a different place? Sit in the back of the bus? Well, someone might say, that was different: it was discrimination. I was racism. Seems pretty much the same to me. Why don't we use that word? "Discrimination"?

America is supposed to be the land of opporunity. It was borne of the idea that each of us should have a chance to attain the American Dream, equally. None among us ought to be denied that chance.

Posted by: Benjamin at February 21, 2004 12:46 PM

Kevin -- I don't think your position on this question is consistent.

First, I don't know what "legally define someone as a woman" means. In how many contexts does a legal definition of someone's gender arise? Very few, I suspect.

But, aside from that -- I tend to agree with the notion that the most logical thing to do is have governments only legally recognize civil unions. If you want the benefits/liabilities of what we now call 'marriage' than you have to be civilly united in the eyes of the state. Leave 'marriage' to the churches. Fine.

But, if that's your position, then I don't understand your opposition to the government labelling that set of rights and responsibilities 'marriage.' Surely, if we adopted your position--that governments only do civil unions and nothing else--you would allow that churches should 'marry' whomever they want (or don't want). And you wouldn't refuse to let churches 'marry' gay couples if they wanted to, right? (Why should the state interfere in that -- it would have nothing to do with the state...)

I liked Kevin Drum's take on this issue recently:

    [Marriage is] whatever we as a society decide it is. Unless you have a specifically Bible-centric view of what marriage is, you need to accept this simple reality: marriage is not a natural law, it is a human institution that's defined by humans and subject to change by humans.
    Slavery was a human tradition for 5,000 years too. So was child labor, the subjugation of women, and the divine right of kings. All of these are venerable human institutions that we recently decided to change. So why not marriage? Why shouldn't we change it if that's what we collectively decide to do?

Posted by: J at February 21, 2004 06:19 PM

My point is that from where I sit it appears that the fight *for some* is less about equal rights than it is about trying to redefine marriage.

If civil unions were to be an institution that granted all of the same legal rights as marriage, other than the word "marriage"..., where is the problem? And how is supporting civil unions that are legally comparable to "marriage" not about recognizing love and keeping one's nose out of somebody elses moral choices? If I wanted to try to legislate morality or discriminate against gays, I'd oppose anything that granted gays rights comparable to those enjoyed by married couples. N'est pas?

Posted by: Kevin @ TIV at February 21, 2004 06:20 PM

Democrats have good pollsters, are able to read this unfortunate American temperment, and act on it.

Well, but here's the thing. Merely acquiring a snapshot view of what the current mood of the country strikes me as an awfully poor way to attempt to lead.

The problem has been that the Democrats do not attempt to lead. They do not attempt to make a case, to reframe issues away from how the Republicans put things. I mean, Republicans have managed to convince people that LIBERAL=COMMUNIST and that ALL TAXES ARE BAD and that ALL GOVERNMENT IS BAD. Those are ridiculous propositions on their face, but the Democrats accept these and other things as starting points and then try to move from there. Why?

The more closely I've watched, the less I've understood. The radical right has systematically turned political discourse into junk. Complete junk. And the Democrats have continually accepted whatever framings the Republicans have wanted to use.

So, you know what, I don't even really buy the notion that the United States has become more conservative (whatever 'conservative' even means anymore). I think that even the way the questions are posed leads to this conclusion. But get at the same issues from different framings (e.g., not gay marriage but "equal rights" and not "socialized medicine" but, say.. "health care worth what we pay for" [that's not so good, but..] and not "raise your taxes" but "meet our responsibilities" or something...) and I suspect we'd get a very different view of things.

So, in short, I suspect that those expensive Democratic pollsters are being tasked with the wrong problem. Don't ask "what do people think about Republican-framed issue X?" (And it's corollary: How can we make it look like we agree without completely becoming Republicans?) Instead, task your pollsters and strategists with figuring out the best way to advance the causes and issues that will actually solve some of the problems facing this country--not just react to the Republican agenda (which, as far as I can tell is: a) enrich corporations at the expense of workers and citizens, and b) get as close to a fundamentalist theocracy on social questions as you can).

Posted by: J at February 21, 2004 06:32 PM

Kevin -- I still don't understand your objection.

If, to the state, "marriage" and "civil unions" are exactly the same, then why do we need two terms for them? Won't that just cause inefficient government bureaucracy and generate needless costs? (Two forms for everything, tests to make sure that the two people really are XX and XY, and so on..)

Posted by: J at February 21, 2004 06:34 PM

Actually, J... I am agreeable to the idea of having the government only sanction civil unions for everyone and those who wish to can go to a church or whatever to get "married". But, what I was driving at was the idea of getting the government out of any relationship contracts altogether. The only real drawback I can see with that, versus civil unions or gay marriage or whatever, would be the next-of-kin rights like if one person were on their deathbed or facing a dire medical situation or whatever.

My issue with calling it "marriage" is strictly a legal one. There are some gays who've had um... plastic surgery up top who refer to themselves as females. I don't have a particular problem with that. But I would have a problem with the government granting them legal status as a "woman" just because they got a boob job. Biologically they are men and trying to redefine what "woman" means, legally, seems to me to be akin to revisionist history. Let them do what they want. I don't care about that provided nobody gets seriously hurt. My opposition isn't about morality. It's about communication. Either words have certain mutually agreed upon meanings or they don't. I dislike anarchy. I guess that's really my core beef with it.

Out of curiosity, would you support the government granting the same civil union contract to polygamists? Just curious if or where you'd draw the line beyond gays and heteros being able to participate in it.

Posted by: Kevin @ TIV at February 21, 2004 06:44 PM

Kevin, the proper term is "transexual" -- and they're not all gay.

Any law based on labeling people as "male" or "female" is going to get pretty murky, pretty fast -- the genetic situation can be messy, without even getting into the gender reassignment wrinkles.

And as for groups -- why would you limit it to just polygamists? What about the polyandrists and the polyamorists?

My position: marriage is a contract, an agreement to share capital and other resources for the common good of the people in the agreement, and any issue of the same. I don't see any logical reason for limiting that to situations involving just two people.

Posted by: genehack at February 21, 2004 07:58 PM


I know what the term is. In fact I first typed in transexual. But, in lay terms that is often used to describe post-op transexuals and I didn't wanna muddy up what I was driving at any more than necessary. Perhaps in trying to do that I muddied it up more than necessary? It wouldn't be the first time... LOL

Except in rare situations the genetic situation is remarkably clear, actually. And gender-reassignment cases are part of what I was getting at. We both know that there are a lot of women who would be VERY uncomfortable sharing a public bathroom with an obvious post-op transexual, for example. On the surface that probably seems like prejudice and some of it probably is. But, I don't think it's reasonable to just explain it away as simple bias. "Using the facilities" is a highly personal and very private thing for many people. Trying to force your ethos on them is no better than them trying to force their ethos on you.

I used polygamist as an example, obviously. I think a rereading of the relevant sentence makes that much clear.

Lastly, there are many people who agree to share capital and everything else for the common good of those involved without being married. Isn't that what long-term gay couples have been doing for a very long time? There are hetero couples doing the same for other reasons.

My exwife's mom and step-father have been together for about 30 years and have twin daughters together. In every measurable way they have been and remain a more stable, productive, committed couple than a great many of the married couples I have known. They have never married because he refuses to, as he sees it, jump thru societies hoops and obtain a piece of paper. That's his choice and I recognize that this makes it fundamentally different than the situation facing gay couples. But, he is being discriminated against by even pro-marriage gays as well as the larger society. Because of his deeply held beliefs (basically a left-of-center hardcore Libertarian worldview) he can't enjoy many of the rights that he deserves unless he jumps thru those hoops. And I'm not talking about tax code stuff. I mean next-of-kin issues and the like. They moved out of the country to get away from it. But, they ran out of $$$ and recently had to move back.

Posted by: Kevin @ TIV at February 21, 2004 09:04 PM

Sorry, Kevin. I still don't understand your specific objection. I don't know what you mean by "legal status" with respect to being (or not being) a woman. I don't know how a woman in a restroom would know that another person there was a post-op transexual (women's toilets have doors, recall -- there are no urinals or bidets in most American women's bathrooms).

Two quick points, though. First, government can not be removed from contracts (relationship or otherwise) since it is our very system of laws, courts, and precedent, among other things, that enables enforcement of those contracts.

Second, the meaning of the word "marriage" has changed so dramatically over the last 50-100 years (and certainly over the last 1000), that I can't imagine that the small change of removing reference to the gender of the two people involved is really that dramatic a shift, looking comparatively over history. Given that "marriage" now encompasses everything from Britney Spears little fling in Vegas to the relationship that Charles and Diana had to describing how a nun is involved with Christ, I think the term is robust enough to handle this very small change. If you're worried about anarchy -- we've already got anarchy. I have no idea whether when a friend talks about their marriage they mean they mean the same thing by that term that I do. The mere addition of temporary uncertainty about the gender of their spouse hardly increases at all the possibilities of what people mean when they say "I'm married."

Posted by: J at February 21, 2004 09:49 PM

Recommended Reading:

The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir
The Politics of Truth... A Diplomat's Memoir

Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush
Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke
Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror

LIES by Al Franken
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right

The Great Unraveling
The Great Unraveling

The Great Big Book of Tomorrow
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow

Clinton Wars
The Clinton Wars

Blinded by the Right
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative

Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture

Living History

The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton

John Adams

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

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