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Chris, Leadership, and The Wisdom of Not Digging When One Is In A Hole

Over at Law Dork, Chris has a smaller branch discussion going in the now perpetual debate among Democrats as to "whither the party." Particularly, he's giving Kerry a hard time for reasserting his long-time stance on gay marriage: that he's against it, and for civil unions:

...Kerry is not only wrong "in principle" -- he's also wrong in fact, as most Massachusetts people and a large majority of Democrats support marriage equality.

Go home and stay home, Kerry. We were looking for leadership, not a timid follower.

Sadly for Chris, Kerry actually is showing signs of leadership here, inasmuch as he's attempting to lead his party to political victory and some kind of power.

As the debate on Rumsfeld v. FAIR heats up, look at it this way: the Democrats need another major judicial win like Lawrence in the same way that my (rapidly expanding) waistline needs a few more helpings of kimchi rice from The Mill. Sure, those Kennedy opinions--full of artificial history and spicy invocations of universal and international law--fill the hunger one has for political change. There's even the possibility of a sweet and vicious little Scalia dessert...er, dissent, so that the Democratic faithful can wonder how fortunate they are that he's in the minority. But in the longrun, these greasy feasts will clog the arteries of your body politic, or at least the party that's eating them.

(Surgeon General's Warning: Blogging while hungry can be bad for your metaphors.)

This is essentially what's happened to the Democrats. Maybe Chris is right--although polls have bounced on this issue, my guess is depending on whether you call it one of "marriage equality" or "gay marriage"--and there is a Massachusetts majority in favor of gay marriage. It wasn't enough of a majority to actually push through a bill on the subject. Rather than try for the artful compromises of politics, proponents took to the courts. As a result, there's homosexual marriage in Massachusetts, and thirty-some anti-gay marriage amendments in state constitutions... and counting.

So where does that get us to Kerry showing leadership? By forcefully rejecting gay marriage, and coming out in favor of compromise. Civil unions are about as American as Mom and apple pie. That is to say, they're the kind of compromise Mom makes when two of the children are arguing over the apple pie, even though she knows that this argument is, in most senses, window-dressing for deeper familial debates going on under the surface. Maybe Elder Brother is upset that the family is paying more attention to Younger Brother's flamboyant ways, or Younger Brother's upset at always having to wear Elder Brother's hand-me-downs and doesn't feel valued enough.

Who knows? Though the compromise satisfies neither brother in the long term, but suffices as a short term resolution so that both sisters, Father, and even Mother can go on to worrying about other things. Implicit in the compromise is a threat: ok, you may not get what you want, but complain too loudly and I'll make sure this comes out on the side of your brother.

Civil unions are just this sort of compromise, and sensible political figures on the left lose nothing by saying, "As much as we might like expanding marriage, we should respect the fact that vast portions of our nation do not want to see traditional marriage altered in this fashion. Let us compromise with civil unions, and come back to it in five or ten years, after we've laid the groundwork necessary." With that issue aside, they could concentrate on dividing the religious vote, becoming the party that once again smacks Republicans on wedge issues, and actually gets themselves into power.

The risk at the moment is also pretty clear: if a majority of the victories of the Democratic Party emerge from the judiciary, Republicans are going to concentrate their fire there. Admittedly, it's a fortified position, and difficult to get at, but it's not impregnable. Sensible leadership--of the kind Chris is criticizing and Kerry is offering--seeks to expand the power base.

But hey, if the Democrats run Howard Dean or Hilary Clinton in '08, I'll be a happy clam.


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Yeah, ultimately Congress is sovereign, and could dismiss all sitting judges at one fell swoop, if they had the votes (and cojones). It's be dire political times indeed if things came to that, and makes the mis-named 'nuclear option' that's been much in the news lately look like school-yard name calling. But such a move would be perfectly within Congress' power. God help us that we never get to that point.
To be honest, I've pretty much given up hope. I'm even thinking of sitting 2008 out. I don't see much promise on the horizon.
Oh, come now, Terrance. There's three years left to go, and in that time a lot can change. I'm sure by 2008 there'll be something to inspire.
Like I said in a post on my blog, right now the likely front-runners for the Democratic nomination -- Kerry and Hillary -- are testing to see how far right they can go. I tend to think it's a losing strategy for Dems, because of voters have a choice between a Republican and a near-Republican, they'll probably choose the former. Either way, gays are in a bad position. The folks who would seem to be our friends are moving away from us, and the Republicans were never our friends to begin with. For the Dems, we're a constituency they can afford to screw over, because they're aren't enough of us to get them elected, and we don't have anywhere else to go. That last part is because the Republicans don't have a vision for the country that even begins to include us. So who does that leave? Not many choices if we're only counting parties actually likely to win. I suppose a dark-horse might emerge and change the landscape, but we know how it ended up that last time that happened. What it comes down to is that my concerns aren't near the top, or even the middle, of anybody's list of priorities. And the conventional wisdom seems to be that they can't be for the Dems, if they want to win. I don't expect any progress under the current administration and Congress, and the best I can hope for in the next three years is to be left alone. Beyond that, if conventional wisdom prevails, that will likely be the case no matter who wins.
Terrance, Also, gays don't consistently vote for Democrats; Frank Rich, at least, claims that there were 200k more homosexuals voting Republican than Jews doing so in 2004. At this point, it makes more demographic sense for Democrats to ensure that they don't lose African American and Latino voters (many of whom are socially conservative and not in favor of same sex marriage) than it does for them to go the distance for gay voters. My problem with Kerry is that I think he could state the position better, as being "I personally am not opposed to same sex marriage, but I recognize that the majority of Americans are, and therefore think that civil unions are a fair compromise." A personal opposition to same sex marriage just creates a knee-jerk negative reaction among those of us for whom this is a civil rights issue, whereas framing it as "let's move forward where we can" does sound like actual leadership.
Normally wouldn't enter this sort of thing, but must quibble: Sens. Kerry and Clinton are probably the two least likely nominees in the entire party right now. You heard it here first: another Kerry bid blows up in two months, tops, and Clinton wouldn't last much longer. Plus, I don't think she'll even run; I never believed she wanted to.
I'm aware that not all gay voters vote Democratic. A million of us voted for Bush in 2000, and many regretted it. Anyway, what you said boils down pretty much to what I said. The Dems can afford to screw over gay voters, because there aren't enough of us to make a huge difference to them. And besides, where else are we going to go? The Republicans aren't exactly becoming more gay friendly. My prediction is that the Dems will nominate a more centrist candidate, probably one who leans right on gay issues, just far enough that socially conservative blacks, latinos and maybe even some southerners will feel more comfortable voting for that candidate. Gay issues will fade into the background, and the best we'll be able to hope for is that we don't take any more steps backwards. Progress isn't something I see on the horizon in the near future. I just don't seen anything to justify hoping for it. Basically, my choice in 2008 will probalby come down to which candidate is likely to do us less harm. That's as good as I see it getting. Not something I can get excited about.

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