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Reading Legislation

Josh Marshall's readers suggested that blogs might take some responsibility for collaboratively reading thousand-page legislation and finding outrageous things such as the Istook provision. I think this is a great example of the kind of thing that political blogs ought to be doing post-election. I'm basically all for it.

But we should all understand that it's pretty unusual for a devious provision to be as obvious as "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the chairman of the committee and his staff shall be able to read anyone's tax return." That's about as rare as finding a villain who strokes his long waxed mustache while emitting an evil cackle. The question Istook is probably asking his staff is not "who done it?" but why they were so lazy about writing it that it was left out in the open. It's easy enough to write such a provision that hooks into existing laws in such a way that it would be very difficult for a non-expert reader to understand what it does. In this case, you would find a provision of law that designates a category of people allowed to look at tax returns, and then, without identifying the purpose, amend that subtitle to include some other category, which might also not be identified by name. The provision could just as easily read, "Section 429(b)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code is hereby amended to add the words 'and such legislative designees as identified in Section 567(a)(4).'" That would certainly add at least a half hour to the effort of anyone who wanted to know what it really meant, and it might even appear innocuous.

(This actually deserves a short aside on how laws and amendments are written. For the most part, any legislative language, whether a bill or an amendment, is not written in its final form by staffers to members or committees, but by the legislative counsel for the House and Senate. These are extremely dedicated and unbelievably hard-working lawyers, who, especially in the crunch time at the end of a congressional session do amazing work in turning half-baked ideas into something that sounds legal and resolves any contradictions with existing law. As a staffer, if you take a description to legislative counsel, and what they send back is language that reads, "notwithstanding any other provision of law..." and then repeats whatever you gave them, it means that they regard whatever you're trying to do as vaguely ridiculous or illegal and not worth wasting their time to look up the appropriate legal references.)

But my main point was that Josh's suggestion reminded me of an interesting period when I worked on the Hill: a stretch of 1994-95 when the idea of "reading the bill" became a fetish among a subset of the public. It started with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ross Perot made such a big deal of the idea that he had read every word of NAFTA that congressional offices were deluged with requests for copies of the enabling legislation, which as I recall was about 2400 pages long. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be able to say that they had "read NAFTA" and therefore could tell you authoritatively whether it would lead to prosperity or, as Perot said, "that giant sucking sound" of jobs leaving the U.S.

In some ways, this was an inspiring moment of citizen engagement with the democratic process. But you had to know that it would probably lead to even more cynicism, as these dedicated folks would devote hours of reading only to come away frustrated. That's not because the legislation is deceptive or they're not smart enough, but because all the information you would need to form an intelligent opinion about the likely effects of NAFTA was external: relative wages in the two countries, actual mobility of manufacturing, consumption patterns of Mexicans likely to benefit from NAFTA, etc., etc. It's not that people weren't smart enough to understand NAFTA; rather, they were being misled about the information they needed in order to make an independent judgment about NAFTA. (Another way of making that judgement came from a member of Congress at the time who argued that she learned all she needed to know about NAFTA on a trip south of the border when she saw a chicken walk up to a stream of water, take one sip, and drop dead.)

In short, there's a lot to be said for using the combined intelligence of blogs and their readers to scour legislation for outrageous consequences. But just be prepared that there isn't a lot of low-hanging fruit like the Istook provision, and there will be a need for real expertise on the underlying issues as well as the letter of the law. This is where we really need expert blogs of all kinds -- legal, economic, social policy, specific industries -- and a system by which people who are reading legislation can kick something funny looking up and say, "what would this actually do?"

All this gets to an issue that I want to think about over the next few months: can blogs -- and related networking and knowledge-development tools such as wikis -- help to serve some of the purposes of progressive think tanks, in much the way that networked organizing such as moveon.org replaced some of the organizing role of top-down membership organizations? I think they can, but I don't think it's quite happening yet. I'll have more to say on this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Red State Tax Reform

I was at a panel discussion earlier this week with Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, who said that he was skeptical that the Bush administration would propose a serious overhaul of the tax code because, "I know what it looks like when people are working seriously on tax reform, and I'm not seeing it." As a Treasury official in the Reagan era, Steuerle was one of the architects of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, so he does indeed know what it looks like, probably better than anyone.

Today's Washington Post brings news that the administration is considering some sort of tax reform short of a national sales tax or Value-Added Tax, ideas which were never in the cards. Instead, Jonathan Weisman reports, "the contours of a tax plan are taking shape: lower individual and corporate tax rates and steps to broaden the base of taxation and promote growth by cutting taxes on investment."

"Broaden the base," considered one of the basic goals of any tax reform, generally means reducing the categories of income that are exempt from taxation. Broadening the base, by eliminating special treatment of various kinds of investment income, in exchange for lowering rates, was the hallmark of the 1986 reform. But nothing else that Weisman reports suggests that what the White House is considering has anything to do with broadening the base. The favorite policy would be to create expanded savings accounts that would shelter investment income from taxation entirely, and the article suggests that the White House might pay for them by eliminating the corporate deduction for health insurance and the deductibility of state and local income taxes. That's not broadening the base -- at best it's shifting the base, or the tax burden, away from wealthy investors and onto most ordinary people who benefit from these deductions, or in the case of the first, from employer-paid health insurance.

(Which raises again the question, asked here before: Why is the President Determined to Destroy the Private Health Insurance System? It's one thing, albeit shameful, to want to do nothing to expand health care and to oppose proposals such as Kerry's that would slightly expand government's role in order to make the private system work. It's another thing to actively work to break an already fragile system, with no alternative in mind.)

Back to the question of the deductibility of state and local taxes: This was one of the big questions in 1986. Tax reform purists would like to eliminate the deductibility of state and local taxes, on fairness grounds as well as base-broadening. It provides a benefit only to taxpayers who itemize deductions and benefits those who live in high tax states. There is a strong policy argument on the other side, for keeping the deduction, but it's all academic: As the reformers found in 1986, it's a non-starter. Senator Moynihan put his foot down that year on behalf of New York, and there will always be enough votes from relatively high-tax states that deductibility will live on.

Except this time I wouldn't be surprised if the Bush administration is looking at the map and thinking blue state=high tax=screw 'em! But that's not quite right. Look at the CNN/Money Magazine ranking of states by tax burden (this data comes from the Tax Foundation and is flawed in several ways, especially because it includes sales taxes which are not deductible, but this is what legislators will be looking at). Not surprisingly, New York and DC are at the top of the list -- no Republican Senators at risk there. But close behind are Maine and Ohio (Snowe, Collins, Voinovich and DeWine are already the four Republican Senators the administration would be most worried about defecting on a tax bill, in addition to Chafee), Utah comes up fairly quickly, as does Idaho. That's more defections than they can afford.

Bottom line: they're not serious about this. As Steuerle said, the lights are not burning late into the night at the Treasury Department.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 18, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

The Remnant

In response to my comments about the nature of Bush's mandate, a very conservative friend responded with a comment noting the numerical achievement of Bush's victory -- 60 million votes, an actual majority, and improved his standing in most states. That isn't really related to my point -- which was simply that, numbers aside, you can't really claim a mandate to privatize social security when you accused your opponent of lying when he charged that you intended to privatize Social Security -- but I'm prepared to concede that the numbers are the numbers.

Then I looked at my friend's own blog, and noticed that he is promoting a bumper sticker with the initials "TGWW" -- a special discreet code that stands for, "Thank God W Won," a subtle indicator like the Skull and Bones handshake, so fellow supporters can notice each other without calling undue attention to themselves in hostile environments. ("It's a big 'hell yeah!' that will impress your friends and confound your enemies.") How is it that, if Bush's mandate is so clear, his supporters still feel the need to operate as if they were early Christians in the catacombs? Yes, it's true that my friend lives in a "blue state," but it's not exactly the East Village. He is represented by a reelected Republican member of Congress, his state has a Republican governor, and he lives in a municipality where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2:1, the kind of place where Robert Lowell's lines seem fitting: "even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,/ has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,/ and is 'a young Republican.'" So why the secret handshake?

The ability to simultaneously maintain the triumphalism of a mandate, and the sense of being an embattled minority has much to do with the continued political success of the far right. It allows them to maintain the energy and righteousness of opposition even while they claim the most autocratic control of American political institutions since the 1920s. It is also a defensive shield that made it very difficult for Democrats in the past election to treat the Republican right as what it is: the ruling party, and a particularly corrupt one.

The pose of being an embattled minority in a statist and secular culture also helps bring together the economic libertarian and religious right elements of the conservative coalition. Several of the canonical histories of conservatism, such as George Nash's fascinating and sympathetic, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, begin with the bizarrely compelling figure of Albert Jay Nock, a dour well-read libertarian (actually, closer to an anarchist or anarcho-capitalist), iconoclast and cultural elitist who influenced William F. Buckley and others. Nock's memorable idea is that of "the remnant" -- the handful of people who were enlightened about the true nature of the state and who would be misunderstood by the mass of people manipulated by government. Nock's Remnant was an entirely secular concept, but it has an analogue on the religious right which has its own version of the Remnant, its own mythology that depends on the illusion of being a persecuted minority in a decadent, godless culture. (See, for example, Bob Jones letter to Bush: "In your re-election, God has graciously granted America?though she doesn't deserve it?a reprieve from the agenda of paganism."

Democrats lose elections and comfort ourselves that our views represent a majority and we just have to convey them better. Republicans win elections and comfort themselves that they are still an embattled minority and need to keep fighting like hell -- ends justify the means and all that -- against the entrenched liberal power. We're both a little crazy.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 18, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack

Looking for One Senator Willing to Make a Difference

I'm glad to see that Harry Reid will be the next Democratic Senate leader. He is an immensely smart legislator and gifted politician, who understands and appreciates the institution in the way that I always believed George Mitchell did. Let me put it this way: I hope he has the opportunity to be majority leader someday, because he will be one of the greats.

He will also be a perfectly good minority leader. But I don't think it matters so much who the minority leader is. The biggest question in the Senate is this: Who will step into the Metzenbaum role?

If you know what I mean by this, you are showing your age. Howard Metzenbaum, the Democratic Senator from Ohio who retired a decade ago played a very particular role for much of his career. He happily pissed people off. He kept a staffer on the Senate floor at all times, and if there was some bit of outrageousness being pushed through, he would rush to the floor to object, organize speakers to oppose it, or craft some parliamentary device such as "filling the amendment tree" to stop it. Metzenbaum was notably liberal, but he was not a partisan, and was happy to stand in the way of Democratic special interest maneuvering as often as Republican. Senator William Proxmire, who defeated Joseph McCarthy in 1956 and retired 32 years later, played a similar role much of the time. Paul Wellstone did too, though not quite as often as he promised to.

If no Senator adopts the Metzenbaum role, then some horrible things will be rolled through the Senate -- not only ideological extremism but simple corruption. It is hard work to constantly be prepared to do battle on the Senate floor, probably much harder than it used to be. It gets in the way of constituency meetings, travel, speeches, and all the other business that Senators squeeze into the interstices between votes. The Senator who plays this role needs to be unworried about reelection, either because it's in the bag or he's willing to lose. And he needs some experience; even though no seniority is technically required for this improvisitional role, it cannot be a freshman. Candidates for the Metzenbaum role? Russ Feingold would have to be the top pick, now that he has strengthened his hold on the seat. I'm not sure he is well-liked in the same way that Metzenbaum or Wellstone were, which helps them deal with the slings and arrows. Barbara Boxer is another possiblity. It would be an interesting role for John Kerry, returning to the Senate as an angry man, much like Al Gore, but I don't see him sustaining the interest.

Reid's role in all this: He should not have to play the Metzenbaum role himself, but he must protect whoever it is. When he forces votes on things that the Republicans would rather push through unnoticed, there will be endless complaints from Democrats that it interferes with their own travel or speaking plans, but what else is the point of being an opposition party?

It could also turn out that it's a Republican who plays the Metzenbaum role, McCain or Chuck Hagel. But I think that's much less likely.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

I'm Not Going to Pay Too Much For This Mandate!

Last Thursday I argued that Bush could not claim a mandate for policies that he had either not campaigned on and knows are unpopularor explicitly denied. This week the point seems to have caught on that it is not Bush's 51% that denies him a mandate, but the fact that he chose to campaign exclusively on denigrating and destroying Kerry, a risk most presidents running for reelection would not take. The political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker put the argument most persuasively in the New Republic this week. I have no doubt that Bill Clinton had more of a mandate for the course of his presidency with 49% in 1996, or even, as I argued last week, that Bush might have even had more of a mandate in 2000, when he was more specific about what he intended to do, such as to "be a uniter not a divider," although he did none of those things.

So it's not the percentage that matters, but in thinking further about the percentage -- 51 or 52% of the vote, and a real election-day scare -- I began thinking about the degree to which it in fact may be a deliberate strategy, in many ways a brilliant one. I've noted in the past the tendency in Republican congressional politics, particularly in the House, to take pride in slipping something through with the bare minimum number of votes. The last tax cut bill was an example.

That this is the congressional strategy has begun to seem clear to me, although it's a radical innovation. Hastert and DeLay's insight seems to be that a bill that gets 218 votes in the House is just as much the law as one that gets 430. And for every vote they add on to the necessary minimum majority, they might have to compromise in some unnecessary way, whether with Democrats or their own fiscal conservatives. In other words, they see every vote over a bare majority as the equivalent of leaving money on the table or overbidding in an auction.

I'm sure there is a whole body of political science literature on this question, and the rational choice model that dominates the field would probably predict exactly this behavior. But in practice, it's highly unusual. Usually legislators would prefer to get 60 or 70% of the votes than 50%+1. It's a personal affirmation, it's a margin of error, it's an insurance policy against efforts to block or repeal the legislation later. And they are in the business of negotiating. They like to wheel and deal. If a piece of legislation is moving forward and some member wants to vote for it but wants some little change or a favor later -- why not? And usually the price of extra votes isn't too high; the cost of getting to 50%+1 is often much higher. But the current congressional leadership -- perhaps responding to the White House -- seems to favor instead taking the most polarized position, as long as their side is the one that gets slightly over half the votes instead of slightly under.

Is it possible that Bush and Rove took the same approach to the election? If so, it's an astonishing innovation. A president running for a second term would always be presumed to want a big, affirming majority. Nixon did, Reagan did (both got it), Clinton did. Is it possible that Bush didn't?

There's plenty of reason to think so. The basic narrative of the Bush first term is that described by E. J. Dionne in Stand Up, Fight Back: He had two chances to be a unifying, popular president: by being conciliatory after the contested election, and certainly after 9/11. Twice he squandered that opportunity. His descent from 91% approval to 51% election was largely by choice: a choice to stake everything on Iraq, a choice to polarize Congress, a choice to embrace divisive social issues, a choice to conduct a negative campaign. Unlike his father, who was undone by a truly failing economy, or Jimmy Carter who was undone by a failing economy and a helicopter crash in the Persian desert, there is really no external factor in Bush's decline. Of course he would never have stayed at 91%, but it is easy to imagine a set of choices that a president in Bush's position could have taken that would have all but guaranteed him a reelection on the scale of Reagan in 1984, with a vast majority of electoral votes.

It's possible, I suppose, that the decision to invade Iraq foreclosed this possibility. That is, once he let his presidency be hostage to the entirely predictable chaos of that country, the only way to survive was by thoroughly discrediting his opponent. I'm not sure, though. As recently as the late spring, it looked possible that Iraq could have calmed down -- or at any rate, Bush hoped so. Well before that, they decided on an approach to campaigning that was based entirely on discrediting Kerry sufficiently that he could win just a majority. And he could have handled Iraq in a way that would have been less polarizing in the U.S. -- asking for sacrifice, admitting mistakes, responding with authentic outrage to Abu Ghraib and other outrages.

For at least two years, Rove, Ken Mehlman, Matthew Dowd and others were predicting that the election would be close but Bush would win. Why? Doesn't it seem that if the election were truly to be close, that they would have to worry that either candidate might win? Shouldn't they have wanted to do more to open it up? And just what would they have sacrificed to do so?

It's a nerves-of-steel strategy, if indeed that was the strategy. If it works, it's very powerful -- Bush can claim a mandate and there is no one but a few bloggers and political scientists to call him on it. He is free to act without having paid the extra, small price that it would have taken to win a broader affirmation from the American people.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 12, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

More on ballot initiatives

Further on my comments about ballot initiatives and voter turnout, I recommend reading Kristina Wilfore's comments on my earlier post (scroll down). Kristina runs the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the only progressive organization that tracks the use of ballot initiatives by the right, that helps defend against them, and that tries to help liberals make better use of the initiative in support of our own causes. Tremendous progress has been made in recent years on all three of those projects, and it's largely because of Kristina and BISC.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 6, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

How to Limit the Number of "Whither the Democrats" Articles You Have to Read

In the weeks ahead, there will be hundreds of essays, blog posts, sonnets and sestinas on the perennial question of "Where the Democrats Should Go Next" or "How to Save Liberalism." I expect to write a few of them myself. You can't read all of them, so here are two tips to pare back your reading:

First, whenever you see an analysis that begins with a phrase similar to, "We need to find a way to convince low-income/rural/evangelical whites to stop voting against their own self-interest," stop reading. If we start from the premise that we know what people's interests are better than they do themselves, that's part of the problem. People have many interests and motivations. If what liberals want them to do is put their economic interest above others, they should be clear about that, and explain why we should prefer people to prioritize their economic interests over others.

Second, the prerequisite before reading anything else is to read the fifteen-year-old essay, "The Politics of Evasion" by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. Forget that it is one of the founding documents of the Democratic Leadership Council. It does not have the divisive tone that characterized the DLC in the 1990s.

Consider how relevant some of their points seem today:

Democrats have ignored their fundamental problems. Instead of facing reality they have embraced the politics of evasion. They have focused on fundraising and technology, media and momentum, personality and tactics

Some of its conclusions have either been disproven or are obsolete. And I don't recommend it because I agree with it completely. But it's like reading a little Machiavelli or Marx. It's one of the basic texts from which all modern arguments about the party and liberalism flow and its arguments must be understood.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

The right question about religion...maybe

It's only been two days, and I feel like I've already been through way too many discussions among seculars on the "Religious Problem." I'm tired of the cartoon about "Jesusland," of arguments about whether religion just has too much influence, about how we can encourage low-income whites to vote "their interests" rather than what they consider moral values, or whether we should "encourage moderate religious voices," whatever that would entail.

I think the right way to frame the question about the role of religion in current American life is as follows:

We are clearly in the middle of one of the great periods of Christian revival in American history, the third or fourth of the "Great Awakenings" in American Protestantism. Each such period has begun with a change in the nature of worship itself, essentially a private phase, and moved onto a public phase where it engaged with the political process. These have been significant moments of progress for this country. The Second Great Awakening led in it public phase to the Abolitionist movement. What some historians consider the Third Great Awakening beginning in the 1890s led to the Social Gospel movement, settlement houses, and the beginnings of the progressive era idea of a public responsibility to ameliorate poverty.

The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change.

I need some reading suggestions here. If you've read Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism you'll probably recognize that my question comes from there. Here's a chart that summarizes Fogel's basic view of the Great Awakenings, which I believe is idiosyncratic compared to that of most historians of religion (Fogel is an economic historian) Fogel helped me understand the question, but not to answer it. I'd appreciate any thoughts or advice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Do Ballot Initiatives Boost Turnout?

I mentioned this in a parenthesis in my previous post, but I want to say a little more as the consensus seems to grow that the anti-gay marriage initiatives increased the turnout of white evangelicals. I think it is extremely unlikely that the initiatives drew significant numbers of people to the polls who would not otherwise have voted in the most polarized election of their lifetimes. It is hard to imagine that there are white evangelicals who could not be motivated to vote on Bush v. Kerry, but needed the added bonus of a constitutional amendment that would not even have any immediate effect on the rules in their states in order to get off their butts.

A year and a half ago, I spent some time helping a friend look into the idea of pushing some initiatives on environmental issues in order to increase turnout and/or call attention to some of the Bush rollback's of regulation. For example, we were thinking of initiatives that might set clean water standards in a state back to the federal level that prevailed under Clinton. In the course of this, I asked several experts whether they could think of examples where a ballot initiative had measurably increased turnout in a way that affected other things on the ballot. Only a California consultant who has probably run more initiative campaigns than anyone in history had an answer: in 1982, when L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley lost the race for governor by 53,000 votes, it is generally thought that a gun-control initiative on the ballot that year drew at least that number of pro-gun voters to the polls who then also voted against Bradley. But that was 22 years and many initiatives ago, and even that one generated turnout in opposition to the initiative, rather than in support. Also, it was in an off-year election, not a presidential election. It's harder to boost turnout in a presidential year, because a much larger percentage are going to vote anyway.

Not much came of our environmental-initiative scheme, but liberals did have at least one initiative on the ballot that was designed not only to achieve its stated aim but also to increase turnout of underrepresented voters: the Florida initiative to raise the state's minimum wage. A lot of money and energy went into the initiative, and it passed by a large margin. Maybe it increased turnout of low-income voters, but not enough to win the state for Kerry or for Betty Castor. I don't know the best method to determine whether either this initiative or the anti-gay marriage initiatives actually caused turnout to be higher than it would have been otherwise, but I know we don't have that information at the moment.

That's not to say that the anti-gay initiatives weren't key to the Bush victories in red states. I don't think it was turnout so much as a way to send the message to their voters that the key issue in the election was gay marriage. And it did so in a subtle way, without forcing the president to make it the issue or inducing much of a backlash among younger voters, who were probably indifferent to the initiatives. In fact, they even left the president free, when he realized that he was losing younger voters, to explicitly endorse civil unions, the very policy on which the White House planned to excoriate Howard Dean a year ago, and which was explicitly prohibited by many of the initiatives. We also need to know a lot more about how information about the initiatives was conveyed -- was it mailings, calls, church-based interventions?

Finally, there seems to be some concern that trying to figure out the role that these initiatives played in the Bush reelection constitutes "blaming the gays." For my part, I want to be very clear that there's nothing that gay rights advocates or the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court should have done differently. They didn't choose to put these initiatives on the ballot; the right did. This was not a matter of gays claiming their equality, it was others trying to restrict that equality. If the right didn't have the Massachusetts ruling as an excuse, they would have found another, just as they did in 1996. Let's not worry about blame, and really find out what happened. I suspect it will be less significant than it seems right now, but nonetheless important to Bush and a brilliantly executed shadow campaign.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

"Closet Tolerants"

It appears that the state initiatives to ban gay marriage had some role in the Red State wins, whether by increasing turnout (I am very skeptical that ballot initiatives on their own can ever increase turnout in a presidential year) or simply by by bolstering the pitch to white evangelical voters, that is, making sure that when they were in the voting booth they were thinking about gay marriage.

Two points came to my mind thinking about this today. The first is that I don't know many straight progressives who were particularly concerned about these initiatives or the issue generally. I can't think of a progressive organization that was particularly involved in the fight against them. I happened to be involved in a small way in putting together a fund for the opposition to the initiatives in the various states, and quickly became quite passionate about the meaning of this assault on rights but that was almost accidental. (I'm on the board of the foundation that was managing the allocation of funds.)

For the most part, I think straight liberals had the attitude that it was a gay issue and gay people are responsible for their issues. (Perhaps also assuming that gays had chosen to force this issue on the agenda.) We all have the correct views, of course, and may even care passionately about marriage and civil unions as it affects people we love. But we needed a wake-up call that "it's our fight too." Because the issue is not just gay marriage. The issue is the manipulation of hate, discomfort, resentment, displaced anxiety, etc. for political power, which will be used for all sorts of purposes. Let's put it simply: our country will have the foreign policy it does, the economic policy it does, in part because of the skillful manipulation of the gay marriage issue by people who are probably indifferent to the issue.

And straight people and in particular religious people need to be deeply involved in the thinking about how to deal with these initiatives and similar things because the key to winning is obviously reaching straight and religious people. I'm not surprised that the anti-marriage initiative that came closest to defeat was in Oregon -- 46% no -- because they have had endless experience with vicious anti-gay amendments and groups there have figured out how to reach into rural Oregon and find ways to talk to people about what they mean.

And this reminded me of something I'd written a few weeks ago and abandoned, during the stupid dust-up over Kerry's mention of the Coors Brewing Company's distinguished liaison to the gay and lesbian community, Ms. Cheney:

Andrew Sullivan had a nice phrase at the time to describe Bush and Cheney: They are "closet tolerants," he wrote. "They have no problem with gay people personally; but they use hostility to gay people for political purposes, even if it means attacking members of their own families. What they are currently objecting to is the fact that their hypocrisy has been exposed." I'm not sure they're all that tolerant, but you know they wouldn't give two hoots about gay marriage if Karl Rove didn't tell them that it was the tactic by which they would retain power.

I think "hypocrisy" is too forgiving a word for it. It actually raises one of the most interesting moral puzzles in modern politics, what I sometimes call the George Wallace question. If George Wallace wasn't really much of a racist as a personal matter (and there's every reason to
believe he wasn't), but manipulated racism and stoked it in order to further his political career ("I'll never be out-ni-----d again," he said after his first loss) is he morally better than someone who in his heart really is a racist?

I once heard Representative John Lewis speak about his visit to George Wallace, near death, in which Wallace apologized for his violence against the civil rights movement and his opposition to segregation. And Lewis speaks movingly of forgiving Wallace, because he understood that "in his heart" Wallace was not a racist. I'm in no position to challenge Lewis -- he was the one beaten to within an inch of his life by Wallace's goons on the bridge at Selma, and it's his forgiveness to offer -- but I've never been quite comfortable with it. Interestingly, it's similar to the moral logic that Bush often uses, referring to his own morality and that of others based entirely on what's "in my heart" rather than conduct.

In my moral code, it's pretty clear to me that, whatever is in your heart, there's nothing more contemptible than to increase or exacerbate the level of hate and intolerance in the world, and to do it willfully for personal gain is despicable. I'd be a lot quicker to forgive someone who had been deeply racist "in his heart," because of how he'd been brought up or whatever, than someone who merely used racism. I think that like Wallace, Karl Rove, Bush and the Cheneys, as pure as their hearts may be and as much as they may love their gay family and friends, are the more morally contemptible for the willfullness by which they choose to stoke the hostility and intolerance of others.

There are two huge problems: First, we didn't even fully understand what was going on out there. And second, we didn't know how to say just this if we did. It may be that we never hear about this particular issue again -- it has served its purpose. But we have to be prepared for the next.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 4, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack