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The Do-Something-Else Principle

Why Republicans don’t want to run on policy.


Back in 2012, Ezra Klein noted an interesting distinction between the two major candidates for president:

The central difficulty of covering this presidential campaign — which is to say, of explaining Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s disparate plans for the country — is the continued existence of what we might call the policy gap. The policy gap, put simply, is this: Obama has proposed policies. Mitt Romney hasn’t. …

Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals. They do not include the details necessary to judge Romney’s policy ideas. In many cases, they don’t contain any details at all.

That distinction between the parties has continued into the 2016 presidential cycle. Rarely does a week go by without some Democratic candidate announcing a policy detailed enough to put a price tag on and assess who would be helped or hurt. Hillary Clinton has a plan to address student debt. Bernie Sanders has drafted a bill — Congress could enact it tomorrow if it were so inclined — to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. Democratic candidates are competing to make detailed proposals to increase renewable energy, promote racial justice, raise the minimum wage, limit the power of money in politics, guarantee the right to vote, and do dozens of other things. Sanders likes to propose fully drafted laws, while a Clinton proposal is more typically a list with a price tag and maybe a funding mechanism. But the details are there.

You may hate these plans, and think the proposals that implement them are terrible. But if you don’t know exactly what Democrats are proposing, it’s probably because you haven’t bothered to find out. The candidates (or their web sites) would love to tell you. [1]

On the other side, though, details are scarce. Republicans want to “shrink the government” and “secure the border” and “defeat ISIS” and “repeal and replace ObamaCare” and “promote a culture of life” and enact “a growth agenda” and “make America great again”. But when you ask exactly what any of that means in this case or that case, things get iffy.

Why? When a pattern like this persists over multiple elections, the cause has to be more than just the style of particular politicians.

On some issues, the cause is obvious: Republican candidates aren’t going to have point-by-point plans to deal with global warming, because their ideology won’t allow them to admit it exists. [2] Likewise, they’re not going to have a plan to deal with racial injustice, because (according to them) there is none: Blacks are a disproportionate share of the prison population because they commit more crimes, and police gun them down more often because they are more threatening. Likewise, Republicans are not going to have a minimum wage proposal (other than maybe getting rid of the minimum wage) because setting wages is the market’s job.

But that doesn’t explain why so few Republicans have detailed their plans for cutting the federal budget [3], or replacing ObamaCare, or reducing entitlement spending [4]. Republicans say they want to do all those things. They just don’t say how.

The reason, I believe, is what I am calling the Do-Something-Else Principle:

When a public problem is genuinely hard, and has so many moving parts that the average person has a hard time holding them all in mind, any realistic detailed solution will disappoint the general public. Consequently, a politician who gets identified with any particular solution is at a disadvantage when running against a rival who wants to do something else.

No matter who proposes it or what kind of principles they base it on, once a solution gets nailed down well enough for the nonpartisan wonks at the Congressional Budget Office to estimate what it will cost and how well it will achieve its goals, most Americans will get disenchanted, thinking “There has to be a better way.” So a canny politician — particularly one who is out of power and has no responsibility to actually govern — will align himself with that longed-for “better way” and avoid getting pinned down on specifics as along as possible.

Examples of do-something-else are legion: ObamaCare is a specific program, while “repeal and replace ObamaCare” is a proposal to do something else. [5] The Iran nuclear deal is a specific agreement that Congress can vote up or down, but the “better deal” that Republicans support is something else. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform that the Senate passed (with votes from Republicans like Marco Rubio who have since retreated from it) is a specific plan, but “securing the border” is something else.

So far, the campaign has only two complex issues on which Republican candidates have taken definite stands: abortion and immigration. On both issues, they have been dragged kicking and screaming into policy commitments, and it hasn’t worked out well for them.

Abortion. Republicans run best when they can maintain a vague abortions-are-oogy position without getting drawn into individual examples. But the Christian Right fell for that back in the Reagan administration and has been wise to it since. Today’s pro-lifers demand clear commitments.

Consequently, everyone who isn’t a religious extremist finds Republican candidates’ abortion positions disappointing, or maybe even horrifying. Mike Huckabee has supported the government of Uruguay in forcing a 10-year-old to give birth, even though the pregnancy resulted from rape by her stepfather. Huck has also pledged that as president he would “invoke the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution” to protect a fetus’ right to life, a position that would justify sending federal troops to abortion clinics in much the same way that Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent troops to the South to enforce school desegregation. Scott Walker won’t support abortion even when the life of the mother is at stake, and Marco Rubio has come out against rape and incest exemptions to abortion bans.

Hillary is eagerly awaiting her opportunity to run those videos in the general-election campaign.

Details kill you. Stick with “abortion is oogy”.

Immigration. Republicans were doing fine with “secure the border” until Donald Trump came along. Trump is operating by his own rules, and I’m not completely sure what they are. But one rule seems to be that he can put out detailed plans where the details make no sense.

For example, consider the first reprisal he lists if Mexico refuses to pay for the wall he wants to build on our southern border:

impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages

A “remittance payment” is money that a worker in the United States sends back to his family in Mexico. Both documented and undocumented immigrants do this, totaling more than $20 billion. But these are not drug kingpins and we’re not talking about the kind of large-scale transfers the government is set up to trace. Even National Review, no fan of Mexican immigrants in general, doesn’t see a practical way to block the undocumented guy washing dishes at your local diner (for $3 an hour) from sending $20 to his mom, much less block only the payments from undocumented workers and allow remittances from legal employment. (The work-arounds would be simple. Maybe I’ll take the $200 I’ve saved up and wire it to my cousin in Toronto, who can wire it from there to our grandma in Oaxaca.)

Anyway, though, the idea that Trump has a detailed immigration plan is forcing the other candidates to comment on it. They’re taking positions on birthright citizenship and using derogatory terms like “anchor babies“. It’s not doing any of them any good with the non-Republican electorate.

Why only Republicans? The Do Something Else Principle generally works to the advantage of the party out of power. The president has to govern; he can do something or do nothing, but he can’t stand for doing “something else”. (You might think that controlling Congress would give Republicans a similar interest in governing, but apparently not.)

But there is also a subjective element in the Do Something Else Principle that makes it more applicable to Republicans: It only works when the issues are complicated. When a simple proposal would do exactly what it’s supposed to do in a perfectly understandable way — like raising the minimum wage, for example — you’re either for it or against it. Supporting “something else” doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For years, Republicans have been pushing the idea that governing should be simple: There’s right and wrong, principled and unprincipled. We just need simple, good-hearted leaders who have the will to do the right thing, not brainiac experts who design complicated systems. (No Sarah Palin speech is complete without a reference to “common sense solutions“. George W. Bush once pushed a nominee for the Supreme Court — a job normally thought to require expertise — by assuring us that “I know her heart.”) Voters shouldn’t need to study an issue or understand anything difficult, nor should they have to yield to people who do study and understand things. “I’m not a scientist” is a reason to ignore climate change, not a reason to listen to the people who are scientists.

Consequently, the voters of the Republican base, particularly those who live inside the Fox News bubble, have been trained to throw up their hands quickly when things get complicated. Undoing structural racism? An insurance mandate? A tax on carbon? There has to be a better way!

Republican candidates, by and large, are not stupid. They just pander to voters who have been over-indulged in their intellectually laziness. Those base voters don’t want to understand complex issues, they just want to be told that the solution follows easily from the common-sense principles of their ideology. If no actual solution is simple or ideologically correct, then you shouldn’t present one. Just tell them that you’re going to do something else.


[1] The exception that proves this rule is Clinton’s position on the Keystone XL Pipeline: She hasn’t announced one, and that’s a serious problem for her campaign. Democratic voters expect to know what their candidates plan to do.

[2] That’s not entirely true. Republican candidates are split between those like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who think the Earth is not warming, those like Marco Rubio, who believe the Earth might be warming, but don’t care because “the climate is always changing”, and those like Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who acknowledge the reality of global warming, but don’t believe political leaders should do anything about it, beyond crossing their fingers and hoping for “innovation”. But all the candidates are united on the don’t-do-anything conclusion.

Given that, “do nothing” actually is a fully detailed description of their intentions.

[3] In previous years, Rand Paul made headlines with detailed descriptions of how he’d cut federal spending. However, a plan to slash the CDC doesn’t look so good in light of the recent Ebola scare, so Paul has de-emphasized the specifics now during his presidential run.

In his announcement speech, he stated his intentions in a more do-something-else way:

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

Three trillion is a number beyond the ken of most of us. So who can say why the sum total of all the stuff we expect out of our government costs more than that? Isn’t there some other way to spend that $3 trillion that would do everything we want?

That sounds a lot better than slashing the CDC or cutting back on food safety or the national parks.

[4] Chris Christie is virtually unique in presenting a detailed plan for cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age. He thought this would enhance his image as a guy who tells it like it is, even if it means delivering the bad news. That message seems to be working for about 3.3% of the Republican electorate. He will probably be out of the race soon.

[5] The polls that show ObamaCare is unpopular usually measure it against doing something else. It would be interesting to poll a question like: “Do you want to keep the Affordable Care Act or go back to the way our health care system worked in 2009?”

Likewise, if Republicans offered a detailed replacement plan — they’ve controlled the House since 2011 and the Senate since January, so if they had a plan they could have passed it in the House and forced the Democrats to either filibuster it in the Senate or have Obama veto it — polling that plan against ObamaCare would be a fair comparison. But if they had a plan, the burden of public disappointment would shift to them: Is their plan really the best we can do? Why isn’t the problem simpler than that?

Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have talked about their ObamaCare replacement plans recently, but they have produced exactly the kind of “simulacra of policy proposals” Klein was talking about. As Politico observed about Walker’s “plan”:

Walker leaves many other questions unanswered about his plan, including how many people might be covered and how he would pay for it, except to say it would require no new taxes or fees.

Rubio’s “plan” is presented in an op-ed. It includes no numbers. (The numbers in the op-ed are all about ObamaCare, not his own program.) The ObamaCare tab on his website is similarly non-quantitative and unanalyzable, containing statements like “we must save Medicare and Medicaid by placing them on fiscally sustainable paths” without saying what such paths might look like in terms of decreased benefits or increased taxes.

The last time Republicans floated a healthcare proposal detailed enough to be analyzed was in 2009, when ObamaCare was still being debated. The CBO found that the Republican alternative would lower the 2019 federal budget deficit by a small amount ($18 billion), while doing essentially nothing to cover the uninsured: 3 million more people would be covered in 2019 than if Congress did nothing (no ObamaCare, no Republican alternative), but 52 million non-elderly adults would remain uninsured.

If somebody wants to run on “I stand for an America where in 2019 you will have a 1-in-7 chance of being uninsured”, the Democrats will eat them up.

Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave

What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?


In the mostly white professional-class suburbs where most of my friends live, I have frequently seen this bumpersticker:

It tends to show up on Volvos, Priuses, and other cars popular among middle-aged women with advanced degrees, though now and then it appears (in the company of many other stickers) on a less expensive car that is as much billboard as transportation.

The point (which is well understood by the kind of people who have spent their lives testing whether a glass ceiling will break if you hit your head against it hard enough) is that playing by the rules may keep you out of trouble, but it probably won’t get you where you want to go.

In the 70s and 80s when this sticker was becoming popular, the rules in just about every bureaucracy and corporate ladder in the world were made and adjudicated by men. So if a woman played by them, kept to the agenda, didn’t interrupt, waited her turn, and colored inside the lines, she would likely wind up in whatever place men had left on the org chart for a well-behaved woman, a place safely isolated from the levers of power. So the turn she was waiting for would never come. The evidence and arguments she had assembled in her carefully-written memo would likely never be read, or, if read, would never be taken seriously.

In some parts of the economy and government we’ve gotten past that by now, to the point that many young women don’t grasp why confrontational feminism was ever necessary. But even today, when women reach for the top rungs of the ladder, the standards are different. A Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina has to walk a narrow path that Donald Trump (or any male candidate) isn’t constrained by: She must be forceful without sounding angry or shrill, authoritative without talking down, dressed to perfection but not obsessed with appearance. Those rules — still mostly made and adjudicated by men — will tie a woman in knots if she lets them.

Even today, a well-behaved woman has trouble making history.

Now let’s think about well-behaved black women. How much history are they going to make?

That’s the question to start with if you want to understand disruptive protests like the one that kept Bernie Sanders from talking about Social Security in Seattle.

The Seattle protest makes no sense if you come at it from the point of view of an aging, white, progressive, Sanders supporter who came out wanting to hear about Social Security: Neither you nor Sanders had any ill intent. The meeting wasn’t a plot to maintain white supremacy. There was an announced topic, a topic that needs the public’s attention. Sanders wanted to talk about it and you wanted to hear him.

And then those damn women got in the way.

Their tactics are easy to criticize: By targeting Sanders, they’re pissing off the whites most likely to be on their side. On TV, they looked really rude and obnoxious, making white viewers less sympathetic with their cause. It would have been a lot braver if they’d disrupted a Republican rally, where they might have wound up in jail or worse.

“Why are you picking on us?” the progressives wonder. “We’re the good guys. If you’d just asked nicely, we might have paid attention to your issue.”

Why can’t you behave? Wait your turn. We’ll get to your concerns at a more appropriate time.

On her Facebook page, Dominique Hazzard answers:

People are always wanting to know- why are black people rioting? Why are twoc of interrupting the president? Why are those black women disrupting the Netroots panel? Why are they shutting down Bernie’s campaign stop? Why are the coloreds doing things that *i* consider to be unstrategic?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In later post, she addresses the “Why Bernie?” question:

IF YOU WANT TO BE STRATEGIC, you target the people with power who are in your sphere of influence, and who can actually be persuaded to give you what you want. A lot of the time (not all of the time, but often), those people are your allies- allies who are close to getting it right but not quite there.
(Bernie Bern is not ‘there’ yet. Last time he got interrupted, it was disruptors wanting to talk about the criminalization of black women. He centered his answer on unemployment… mere days after Sandra Bland died *on her way to a new job*)

Disrupting a Huckabee rally would be a worse idea, because not only would he not listen, but

your action might backfire, causing Mike Huckabee to double down and racists to respect him even more, rewarding him with more votes.

But however it looked to white suburbanites watching on TV, the Sanders protest got results. A new racial justice page appeared on the Sanders web site, with detailed proposals that met with substantial approval.* The bar has been raised for Clinton and the other Democrats.

Even more than that, though, is the mirror this event places in front of white liberals. (Protests are always part street theater, and the response a protest evokes is part of the production.)

Racism in America today is largely underground, and among liberals it’s completely underground: Nobody ever comes up to me throwing the N-word around and asking how we’re going to keep “them” in their place. But underground is not the same as gone, and a lot of us don’t see our own racism until we’re confronted. That’s why it was instructive to watch how angry the crowd got in Seattle, and how quickly all the paternalistic let-me-tell-you-how-to-protest-better responses popped up.

Very few white liberals’ first reaction — not even mine, I have to admit — was to ask: “Why do you feel like you have to do this?” And even those who asked that question seldom waited for an answer or listened to that answer.

Bernie, to his credit, seems to have listened: not immediately, not in the moment, but within a few days. Maybe the rest of us can follow his lead.


* A legitimate question is: What was wrong with the Sanders platform before this racial justice page was added?

From a BLM point of view, the problem was that Sanders’ message had been class-based and largely color-blind, as if the problems faced by black people in America were just artifacts that stem from being unemployed or underpaid or living in dangerous neighborhoods or having bad public schools. Just create more good entry-level jobs, and solve the crime and education problems in general, and black people will benefit.

And that’s true as far as it goes: If blacks are disproportionately poor and the poor are disproportionately black, helping the poor will help the black community. But what BLM is trying to get across is that race is not a side-issue; the obstacles blacks face do not arise merely from unfortunate circumstances or historical accident. Racism is a very real problem here and now. White people may not like to talk about race, but you can’t solve racial problems in a color-blind way.

The Artful Puppet Master

How Fox turned the first Republican presidential debate into a plus for the GOP.


Leading up to Thursday’s debate, most liberals I know were somewhere between smug and gleeful. The Republican presidential process had started out as something of a circus, with more candidates than anyone could remember and a corresponding need to say outrageous things to stand out from the crowd. And then Donald Trump got into the race, openly characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, and responding to criticism from Senator Lindsey Graham by saying Graham was “not as bright as Rick Perry” and revealing his personal cellphone number.

With Trump in the race and rising to the top of the polls, the other candidates started acting out like five-year-old boys competing for a pretty kindergarten teacher’s disciplinary attention. Previously, Ben Carson had set the gold standard for crazy, with his comparisons of ObamaCare to slavery and the IRS to the Gestapo. But now Mike Huckabee was talking about Obama “marching [the Israelis] to the door of the oven“, and discussing using the military and the FBI to stop abortions. Rand Paul was destroying the tax code with a literal chainsaw, and Ted Cruz went even further by cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of an AR-15. Lindsey Graham seemed downright eager to be in a war with Iran. (“We win!“)

It got so bad that even Democrats were getting a little uncomfortable, thinking about how these shenanigans reflected on America. Humorist Andy Borowitz was only partially kidding when he wrote:

As preparations get under way for the first Republican Presidential debate, on Thursday night, a new poll shows that Americans are deeply concerned that the rest of the world might see it.

Hours before the debate, this showed up on my Facebook newsfeed.

For  a real news network or even an unbiased political entertainment network, none of this would have been a problem. (Pass the popcorn and let the insanity begin!) But the debate was being hosted and televised by the official Republican Party Ministry of Information, a.k.a. Fox News. So although a debate that descended into kindergartenish chaos would make great television, Fox’ brain trust recognized that such a spectacle would hurt the conservative movement it has worked so hard to foster. They saw that as a problem.

They solved it brilliantly.

If you watched the debate through your liberal glasses, you may not have recognized their achievement; to you, everybody probably looked just as scary and unhinged as you expected. (When Huckabee started talking about invoking the 5th and 14th Amendments to protect the personhood of the unborn, he seemed seconds away from calling for federal troops to occupy abortion clinics. But moderator Brett Baier wisely moved on.) However, in the eyes of moderates, independents, and low-information voters, I suspect the debate raised the image of the Republican Party and its gaggle of candidates.

How did Fox manage that? Artfully. I learned a lot by watching.

The problem and the solution. The first step in solving a problem is to state it precisely: The Republican Party’s problem is that its conservative base is shrinking and far out of tune with the rest of the country. So as they campaign for the nomination, candidates constantly have to choose: Should they appeal to the base voters (who will be the majority in the upcoming primaries), or to the American public as a whole (who will judge the eventual nominee in the general election)? For example: Members of the conservative base love to hear pledges that Republicans in Congress will shut down the government this fall and keep it shut until Obama knuckles under and agrees to defund Planned Parenthood. But the public as a whole is ready to be done with that kind of brinksmanship.

So the path to a Republican presidency involves walking a tightrope: leaning far enough to the right to get the nomination, but not so far as to topple out of the mainstream voter’s consideration. Mitt Romney (who I think was a far better candidate than he gets credit for) couldn’t manage it in 2012. His actual record as governor of Massachusetts would have been hard to defeat: He was a problem-solver who could work across the aisle to come up with bipartisan programs other executives wanted to imitate, the way ObamaCare imitated RomneyCare. But he had to pander to right-wing extremists to get the nomination, and he couldn’t recover in November.

Since then, the problem has only gotten worse: The base has gotten angrier and more demanding, while the white Christians who provide its membership continue to shrink as a percentage of the population.

The worst possible thing for the image of the party would be to lob a series of questions into that gap between the base and the average voter: Ask Ted Cruz about his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Ask Ben Carson if Hitler might actually have been a teensy bit worse than President Obama. Ask all the candidates how they plan to avoid war with Iran (if they do), or what they would say to the 16 million people who will lose their health coverage if ObamaCare is repealed, or whether they think our scientists are conspiring to deceive us about climate change, or why they want to force women to bear their rapists’ children.

Once you understand that, you also see the solution: Control the questions and control who answers them. If an issue makes the party look bad, just don’t ask about it. And when most of the candidates stand united around an unpopular position, pick out the one with the most moderate record and ask him to defend it. That answer will look completely different to the two camps: The base voter will see that you’re really putting this guy on the spot. But the average voter will listen to the answer and say, “Hey, these Republicans aren’t as far out as I thought.”

And finally, there’s the special problem of Donald Trump, whose wild statements have been turning off Hispanics, women, and other key demographics. Here, the solution is to excommunicate him: Trump is not a real Republican, so all the bile he expresses is just personal and has nothing to do with the party.

See nothing, say nothing. For two hours in that arena in Cleveland, large chunks of American political discourse just vanished, without even leaving a puff of smoke behind.

The environment, for example, was simply not an issue — not just climate change, but also pollution, oil spills, endangered species, or any other environmental concern. Bashing the EPA is a standard Republican applause line, but there was no cause for that here, because the environment did not exist. It was so far off the radar that Jeb Bush could express puzzlement that Hillary Clinton hasn’t endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline. Rand Paul didn’t have to explain why he once proposed a 42% cut in the National Park Service budget, and Ted Cruz didn’t have to justify his proposal to sell off large chunks of federal wilderness lands.

The related issue of energy policy was also off the table, so no one had to defend burning coal, or fracking, or drilling for oil offshore, or in other fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. No one had to explain wanting to end subsidies for wind and solar power.

Economic inequality was also not an issue, despite the fact that it has come up in several of the candidates’ campaigns: Rand Paul has talked about “the income gap”, and Rick Santorum has charged that “Middle America is hollowing out.” Just about every candidate has questioned whether the American Dream of economic mobility will be available to future generations. But none of that came up.

A related phrase you won’t find in the transcript is minimum wage. A large majority of the public supports raising it, because people who have full-time jobs should not have to live in poverty, and businesses whose workers need food stamps are the real moochers in our society, not the hard-working people they underpay.

But as far as I know, Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage at all, and even his proposed rate is far smaller than the $10.10 that President Obama supports. (Bernie Sanders wants a $15 minimum.) And while I haven’t found a direct quote of a candidate openly calling to repeal the federal minimum wage, several seem to dislike it on general principles. Marco Rubio has said, “Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity.” And the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page posted a link with the comment “How the minimum wage hurts everyone.”

Student debt wasn’t in the questions, and only came up because Marco Rubio volunteered that he used to have some. “How is [Hillary Clinton] gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” But that was just a fact, not a problem, so no solutions were necessary.

Equal pay for women? Off the table. Prosecute bankers whose law-breaking contributed to the Great Recession? No mention. Again, Marco Rubio volunteered that he wanted to repeal the only real financial reform Congress passed after the collapse, Dodd-Frank, inaccurately blaming it for the failure of small banks. But Fox completely omitted Wall Street reform from the agenda.

No one was asked about government shutdowns — including Ted Cruz, who more than any other person was responsible for the last shutdown. Another shutdown in the fall is a real possibility, and Cruz in particular wants that option left on the table. But it wasn’t discussed.

Although many candidates called for ending ObamaCare and none defended it, no one was asked how to replace it, or what they would say to the millions of Americans who have health insurance now, but will lose it if ObamaCare is simply repealed without a replacement.

Although all the candidates oppose the Iran nuclear deal and several criticized it during the debate, none was asked how he plans to avoid going to war.

The Black Lives Matter movement rated one question (to Scott Walker, who dodged it. He didn’t say whether he thought police were over-aggressive towards blacks, but merely called for better police training. There was no follow-up.)

Voting rights? Not an issue. Gun violence? Nothing.

Pin the tail on the moderate. Rather than draw attention to the most rabidly conservative positions the candidates have taken, Fox repeatedly picked out the candidates’ most moderate positions and asked them to justify why they weren’t more conservative.

For example, most of the ten candidates oppose allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. But Marco Rubio was asked to justify favoring such exceptions (which he denied, misleadingly). No one was asked why he would force a woman to bear her rapist’s child. (The one counter-example to the pattern was when Scott Walker was asked to justify his opposition to abortions that protect the life of the mother. He dodged, and there was no follow-up.)

Governor Kasich was asked to justify accepting the money the federal government offered his state to expand Medicaid, but Governor Walker wasn’t asked to justify turning the money down in Wisconsin, thereby denying coverage to 87,000 Wisconsin residents. Kasich talked about the good that money has done in Ohio, delivering a paean to compassion and the effectiveness of government that is totally atypical of both his own philosophy and the Republican Party as a whole.

Kasich got to give another heart-warming speech about love and acceptance when asked how he would respond if one of his daughters turned out to be lesbian. But Mike Huckabee wasn’t asked why he believes same-sex marriage will lead to “the criminalization of Christianity“.

Jeb Bush was asked why he favors immigration reform. (Ted Cruz volunteered that he led the fight against the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.) On the campaign trail, I believe all the candidates have come out against the executive order by which President Obama has prevented DREAMer deportation, and the Republican-dominated House has voted to deport them, but Fox did not find DREAMer deportation worth mentioning.

Rand Paul had to justify why he wants to stop the NSA from collecting the phone records of Americans who have done nothing wrong.

Trump. From the opening question, the moderators made their position clear: Donald Trump is not really a Republican. That opening was a lesson in how apparently neutral questions can in fact be targeted. Brett Baier asked:

Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.

Only Trump raised his hand, and that invited follow-up questions, a reminder that an independent run by Trump “would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” and a direct attack from Rand Paul:

This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. … He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.

Trump was later asked about his past support for “a host of liberal policies” (partial-birth abortion, an assault-weapon ban, and single-payer health care), and his donations to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He has justified those donations as a normal business practice, and so he was asked “what specifically” he got in return.*

Megyn Kelly finally brought it home:

In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets. When did you actually become a Republican?

It was hard to miss her implication that the right answer was never.

Results. I suspect that when all is said and done, we’ll find out that Fox’ effort to pick the candidate — favoring Rubio and Kasich while trying to cast out Trump — had very little effect. But in the way the debate showcased all the candidates and made the Republican race seem much less clownish than it has otherwise been, I think Fox has scored a major victory for its party.

All in all, the evening resembled one of those holiday dinners where you introduce your fiance to your crazy relatives for the first time. All day long, you short-circuit the discussions that will set Aunt Jenny ranting about the Jews, or evoke one of Uncle Bob’s long pointless stories. You carefully approach your sister only when her husband is around to keep her in line, and you seek out Cousin Billy early, before he starts drinking. Only in the car, after hours of threading a safe path through the labyrinth of family issues, do you finally begin to relax. And that’s when your spouse-to-be says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so worried about. They don’t seem that bad to me.”


* Trump replied that because he was a contributor, Hillary had to come to his wedding. I wish I were doing Twitter for Hillary, because I know exactly how I’d respond. Of course she should deny that money was her reason for attending, and she should promise to attend all his future weddings as well, whether he gives any more money to her campaigns or not.

If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany

The public debate is framing the Iran nuclear deal exactly backwards.


As Congress prepares to vote on the recent agreement with Iran, the deal’s Republican opponents have been competing to see who can describe it in the most horrifying terms. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Senator Ted Cruz said “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” In a committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham scolded the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, implying that the administration had been too eager to avoid war.

Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins? … We win!

In a speech whose video has been watched more than half a million times on YouTube, former congressman Alan West denounced the “weakling in the White House” saying:

How dare Barack Obama, how dare John Kerry, how dare Valerie Jarrett, or any of these other charlatans that occupy Washington D.C., surrender this great constitutional republic to the Republic of Iran!

Senator Marco Rubio also sees “weakness”:

President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.

Chris Christie said that President Obama was “giving Iran a nuclear weapon”. And he implied that they will bully more “gifts” out of us, now that the realize how weak our president is:

You give them your belt, they’ll want your pants next. That’s the way it goes

Defenses of the deal, by contrast, have been measured. The New Yorker‘s Steven Coll‘s positive analysis, for example, concludes:

The deal is imperfect but good enough, and it offers a tentative promise of a less dangerous Middle East.

Or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, put it:

Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior than trying to do that militarily.

Listening to this discussion, particularly the portion that penetrates the conservative bubble and bounces around its echo chamber, you might reasonably imagine that whatever small concessions we got from Iran, we gave up far too much in return. Those hard-headed and hard-fisted mullahs bullied that hapless jellyfish that we call a president, who was so eager to get any kind of deal that he gave away the store.

If that’s what you believe, you have the story exactly backwards: There is a bully in the story, but it’s the United States. We got Iran’s lunch money, and we gave up nothing.

How can that be? And if it is that way, why doesn’t President Obama beat his chest and say so?

Who? Us? The central myth of the era of American dominance (i.e., since World War II) is that our power is benign. No matter how many countries we invade or bomb, or how many governments we overthrow (as we overthrew Iran’s fledgling democracy in 1953 and reinstalled the brutal Shah), we always act on the side of right and justice. Sure, we police the world, but we’re Officer Friendly. We’re never the kind of cops who throw their weight around.

In acceptable American political debate, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are allowed to challenge that myth. And that puts the Obama administration at a significant disadvantage as it tries to claim credit for its diplomatic victory over Iran. Because this time we did throw our weight around, and we got something.

Retelling the story. So let’s put aside the myth of benign American power and retell the story of the current agreement, beginning with the basic issue: Will Iran construct a nuclear weapon? In other words, will Iran do something that we did 70 years ago, that Israel did 50 years ago, and that Pakistan (Iran’s rival in the looming Sunni/Shia conflict) did almost 20 years ago?

I grant that in many parts of the Middle East, Iran funds and supplies groups that fight against our allies (though we find ourselves on the same side against ISIS). I grant that we (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) have good reasons to want to keep Iran from building a bomb. But let’s not pretend that Iran was doing something monstrous and unheard of when they built a secret complex capable of producing (eventually) a weaponizable quantity of fissionable material.

Iran is a moderately large country (with a population larger than traditional nuclear powers like United Kingdom or France) with oil wealth and a heritage of civilization going back to Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity). It sees a club of great nations (plus a few lesser nations) and believes it deserves to join. The fact that we have reasons to want to keep them out does not imply that their desire to join is illegitimate.

Threats of war. OK, so what have we done to stop them? During the Bush years, we negotiated a few sanctions, but mainly we rattled our sabers. (The Bush U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, is still rattling. And Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has said “the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office”.) Every few months, the press would publish rumors that we (or Israel with or without our approval) were planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear laboratories and reactors, as Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.  Presumably, at least some of that buzz came from intentional leaks meant to intimidate the Iranians. When the Obama administration came in, it continued to insist that “all options are on the table“. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we might launch an attack.

If you look for any corresponding Iranian saber-rattling at us, what you mainly find are threats to counter-attack if we attack them. (These threats usually get covered in the American press as if hitting back were barbarous.)

So if there’s a Munich analogy here — I wouldn’t go there, but Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and many other Obama critics did (including The Drudge Report photoshopping Obama’s face onto Neville Chamberlain in the photo above)  — the only way it can make any sense is if we are in the Hitler role. We’re the ones who have been threatening war unless another nation agrees to our demands.

Economic warfare. But the saber-rattling wasn’t working, so the Obama administration opened a second front: Through diplomacy, it got the UN Security Council to impose far harsher sanctions on Iran than the Bush administration had managed. We had to convince Russia and China to go along with us on that, which wasn’t easy. (Russia’s desire to oppose the West in Iran goes back the Great Game between the Czars and the British Empire.) But President Obama and Secretary Clinton got it done.

The sanctions took a serious bite out of the Iranian economy, which pushed them to the negotiating table. In the negotiations that just concluded, they agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program that should prevent them from having nuclear weapons for the near-to-medium term. (Whoever is president when the agreement expires will still have all of his or her options on the table.)

Who’s the bully? In exchange for those very real concessions, we agreed to a gradual relaxing of the sanctions that we created. What we’re “giving” the Iranians are their own frozen assets. And we’re going to allow them to participate in the world economy, like any other country would.

In what sense is any of that a “concession” on our part? Imagine you’re in school, and you get a smaller kid in a headlock. He gives you his lunch money and you let him go. Have you “conceded” anything to him, really?

Your fellow bullies might claim that you let him off too easy, that if you’d squeezed a little harder he might have given you his sneakers too. And maybe they’re right: By walking away unscathed, the kid gained much more than you did, compared to the scenario where you beat the crap out of him and took his lunch money anyway. (As Senator Graham says, if it comes to war, “We win!”)

But in a larger sense, all you’ve done is let him out of a situation that you created. You have his lunch money and he has nothing of yours.

That’s the Iran deal: We have an agreement to keep them from building a bomb any time soon, and an inspection regime to make sure they keep that agreement. They got nothing from us.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Hillary Clinton

We all know who she is. But who is she really?


[This is part of my series: The 2016 Stump Speeches.] Hillary Clinton’s candidacy presents a unique challenge. As a presidential campaign begins, the question in voters’ minds is usually “Who is this person?”, and a responsible journalist tries to answer it by presenting information. But the question I keep hearing about Clinton is “Who is she really?”

We are drowning in information about Hillary, but so much of it — positive and negative alike — is false. For decades her critics have been lying about her, and she has countered by presenting a series of images that aren’t completely consistent. So what should we believe about her? If we elect her, what kind of president can we reasonably expect her to be?

The speeches she’s been giving since she started campaigning are meatier, in terms of detailed policies, than just about any other candidate in the race. And I’ll get to those speeches and policies below. But it’s hard to know how to listen to her proposals until you come terms with that over-arching question: Who is she really? Those policies she’s putting forward — which ones come from the heart, and which are driven by expediency?

My Hillary reading project. To answer those questions, I decided to try to clear my mind of prior conceptions and read her books in order: It Takes a Village (1996, a book about policies related to children and families, which she illustrates with stories about her own childhood and her experiences with Bill and Chelsea, as well as stories from women she’s met all over the world), Living History (2003, about her two terms as First Lady), and Hard Choices (2014, covering her Secretary of State years).

Along the way, I found myself drawn to read two books by the reformed right-wing hack David Brock: The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (1996; this was originally intended to be a hit job prior to Bill’s re-election campaign, but it went oddly astray and became an interesting biography) and Blinded by the Right (2002, giving an insider’s view of the Arkansas Project, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded to dig up and publicize dirt about the Clintons).

What I was looking for in Hillary’s books was a consistent author’s voice. I believe writers always reveal more about themselves than they intend. (I worry about that sometimes.) It’s in their word choices, the tone of the stories they tell, the metaphors they use, and what topics they think flow naturally from other topics. If Hillary really wrote those books — and after reading them, I strongly believe she did — then her character must be in there somewhere, no matter what image she may have wanted to project.

Personal impressions. The simplest thing I can report after my reading project is that I like Hillary a lot more than I did when I started. When she appears on TV, she is so often either responding to an attack or anticipating one, so she seems guarded. But I think she feels much more secure when she is alone with a text (which already tells you something about her), and that’s when her self-effacing charm comes out.

She tells one story I love: Hillary knows she doesn’t sing well, so she mostly just doesn’t do it. (In her announcement speech, after she made fun of her Republican rivals by quoting lyrics from the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, she quipped: “You’re lucky I didn’t try singing that.”) But years ago she made one exception: After Chelsea was born, she sang lullabies. That stopped one day when Chelsea became old enough to put rudimentary sentences together. The toddler held up one finger and said, “No sing, Mommy.”

I also now have my own impression of her mysterious and unique relationship with Bill. Critics sometimes portray their marriage as a sham of political convenience, but I don’t think so. Bill Clinton is quite simply the most interesting person Hillary has ever met. She describes their relationship as one long conversation that started back at Yale in the 1970s and is still going. No matter what he might do, the world would be a dull place without him to talk to. For his part, I don’t think Bill would know who he was if he couldn’t see himself through her eyes. In all those infidelities, he’s never been looking for someone to replace Hillary, and if she dies first he will be devastated.

The establishment radical. As for understanding Hillary’s politics, a simple formula will take you a long way: progressive ends through pragmatic means. One of David Brock’s more interesting insights is the formative effect of her student-government years at Wellesley. Like most American colleges and universities, Wellesley changed a lot between 1965 and 1969. But unlike many other educational institutions, Wellesley stayed surprisingly peaceful through it all. Brock attributes that to Hillary’s cadre of student activists:

Hillary was able to co-opt the campus administration by calibrating student demands and winning change through the system.

He sees that experience as imprinting a paradigm of change on her: Hillary is not a revolutionary. She does not seek to overthrow the power structure, but is constantly probing to see how much the powers-that-be are willing to give up to keep the peace and stay in power. Brock labels this “establishment radicalism”.

[At Yale] Hillary took her moral bearings from the radicals, while favoring establishment tactics – precisely the formulation she had told Saul Alinsky would be most effective [when she turned down his job offer and went to law school]. This enabled her to work within the mainstream and to retain the respect and admiration of those in power.

You can hear this in her voting rights speech (see video below): “Progress is based on common ground, not scorched earth.” That’s why she won’t offer liberals red-meat rhetoric about “the bankers” or “the billionaire class”. They represent a power center she hopes to negotiate concessions from, not battle to the death.

The establishment-radical paradigm got reinforced by her biggest failure: healthcare reform. Not only did HillaryCare not become law, she was blamed for the 1994 Democratic rout that made Newt Gingrich the Speaker of the House. She learned her lesson: Push the powers that be too far, or get too far out in front of the country, and you’ll be slapped down.

You can see that cautious vision at work in her account of the Arab Spring uprisings: She presents herself (in Hard Choices) as the hesitant voice in the administration (compared to Obama’s idealism; this is one of the rare instances where she portrays herself out of harmony with Obama). Pushing tyrants like Mubarak to liberalize was right up her alley, but seeing them overthrown by young activists who offered no political program or organization to replace them made her very uneasy. (You can tell she feels vindicated by how things have played out.)

Half a loaf. That pragmatism often causes her to champion half-a-loaf policies when in her heart she still wants the whole loaf, or even to accept a step backwards to prevent a longer slide. You can see that in the Clinton administration’s gay-rights record. Bill came into office wanting gays to serve openly in the military and not thinking about marriage equality at all. He ended up with don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the Defense of Marriage Act — two policies both he and Hillary supported repealing in more recent years. But by supporting those compromises he avoided measures that would have been harder to reverse, like a federal marriage amendment. Through DADT and DOMA, the door to progress stayed ajar until the political climate changed.

It is both a strength and a weakness that Hillary never floats a pie-in-the-sky vision. Behind every Clinton proposal is the judgment: I think we could really do this.

Ironically, one of the best criticisms of that approach comes from the young Hillary Rodham, in the commencement speech she gave to her graduating class at Wellesley in 1969:

For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.

If I could fix one thing about Hillary’s current rhetorical style, I would add a dash of dream-the-impossible-dream.

Hillary as Wellesley’s first student commencement speaker. Is that young woman still in there somewhere?

The wonk-in-chief. The other big thing to understand about Hillary is that she’s a wonk, a technocrat. She believes that smart people can figure things out, and that simple ideological solutions are often wrong. The most from-the-heart line in her economic policy speech was:

And, please, let’s get back to making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology.

I don’t think she believes in ideology. Here’s what I mean by that: What’s real to her are people and the situations of their lives. (That comes through most clearly in It Takes a Village.) Ideologies are abstractions, and while abstractions can be handy tools for thinking things through, they aren’t real in the same way that people are real.

Worse, ideologies exaggerate conflict and hide agreement. My ideology may directly contradict yours, but when we get down to cases and start looking at individuals, very often we might want the same things for them. That’s how she can negotiate with the Iranians and make deals with insurance companies: If we can get down to cases and then create new abstractions from them, maybe we agree on principles that weren’t part of our prior ideologies.

But that approach demands a respect for facts and the real world. Her own respect for such expertise runs deep and traces all the way back to being a girl of the Mad Men era (just a few years older than Sally Draper) hoping to go places women had never been. Being smart and working hard to master the details of a subject was young Hillary’s claim to a place in the Man’s World. She knows that when expertise is disregarded, that’s when prejudice and old-boys’ networks and all the other defensive mechanisms of the status quo have free rein.

She has a wonkish sense of integrity that is easy to overlook: In the three speeches discussed below, every idea comes with either a proposal to implement it, or a promise that such proposals will come later. That discipline won’t let her indulge in the sweeping rhetoric that you’ll hear from other candidates to her left and right. Bernie Sanders can promise to break up the big banks. But in Clinton’s economic speech, you can almost hear her unspoken thoughts on that: What we really ought to be doing is getting the irresponsible risk out of the banking system, and while the too-big-to-fail banks are part of that, there are sometimes bigger risks in “the shadow-banking system, including hedge funds, high-frequency traders, non-bank finance companies; so many new kinds of entities, which receive little oversight at all.” She anticipates her future proposal, where she may have to give a little on the big banks in order to get the risk-reduction she wants.

That wonkish integrity may have cost her the presidency in 2008. She and Obama had very similar half-a-loaf healthcare plans, because neither dared to come out for the single-payer system that I suspect both would prefer. But once committed to her plan, she refused to misrepresent it: Obama pretended he could implement his plan without the unpopular individual mandate, but Clinton would not say that.

She’ll compromise in constructing her proposals, but once she has a plan she takes pride in it and won’t distort it.

But can I trust her? Just this week, we saw another example of what I’m coming to see as the standard pattern: The NYT had a BIG story: Two State Department inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into possible misuse of classified information in Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State. After dodging the bullets of countless scandals in the past, maybe this one would finally nail her.

Except … well, it wasn’t actually a criminal investigation. They had to issue a correction about that. And it wasn’t specifically targeted at Secretary Clinton. Another correction. And a Newsweek journalist who got hold of the same documents says even the corrected NYT story misinterpreted the whole thing. He concluded: “the piece is wrong in all of its implications and in almost every particular related to the inspector generals’ conclusions.”

In short, the big story has evaporated, leaving behind no specific accusation, but a general impression that Clinton must have done something wrong. That’s the pattern. The only atypical thing about this “scandal” is that it fell apart so quickly. If you take a post-investigation look at everything from Whitewater to Benghazi, there’s nothing there. But the overall effect is to shroud Hillary’s public image in a general haze of distrust.

Compare this to the residual cloud of pseudo-scandals that hangs over President Obama: his birth certificate, death panels, Fast & Furious, using the IRS to target the Tea Party, stealing our guns, plotting to invade Texas, and so on. By the Obama administration, most liberals had caught on to the right-wing attack machine, and the way it can sometimes co-opt “liberal” media like the NYT. So we shrug off those Obama stories. But your conservative friends and relatives are sure there must be a fire somewhere under all that smoke. But the attacks on Hillary started in a more trusting era, so her cloud seems more real.

Sometimes I hear this question: Given that Hillary carries this baggage, can’t Democrats nominate a ticket doesn’t have such a cloud hanging over it? Sure. It’s simple: Find candidates so perfect that the opposition can’t even lie about them. Good luck with that.

Now let’s look at the campaign speeches.

The Announcement Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

Announcement speeches are always sited in symbolic places. The choice of Roosevelt Island outside of New York City sends several messages: First, Hillary is running as herself, the former Senator from New York. If she had wanted to run as Bill’s wife, she’d have announced at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.

Second, as she points out in the speech, you can see the new World Trade Center from there. She’s acknowledging that we’re in a post-9-11 world, and she’s identifying with the collective heroism of New York City. But she’s also sending the message that New York isn’t stuck in 2001; it remembers, but it’s getting on with its life. America should do the same.

But finally, and most important, Roosevelt Island indicates that she’s running as a Democrat and claiming the heritage of the Democratic Party as it was remade by Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican nominee will have to run away from both the obstructionist Republican Congress and the disastrous legacy of George W. Bush. (That’s why Jeb Bush’s logo just says “Jeb!”.) But Hillary is confidently invoking the legacies of both President Obama and President Clinton. In the Economics speech she says:

Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess left behind. I think the results speak for themselves.

In this speech, she ties the failure of those two Bush presidencies to ideas Republicans are still pushing.

We’re still working our way back from a crisis that happened because time-tested values were replaced by false promises. Instead of an economy built by every American for every American, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.

She recalls FDR’s historic “Four Freedoms” speech, and organizes her own speech around another set of four:

If you give me the chance, I’ll wage and win four fights for you.

Those fights are:

  • To make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top. More about this in the economic speech. But the key point is: “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other.”
  • To strengthen America’s families. Here you can see my point about ideology. When Republicans talk about “strengthening the family”, they mean an archetype of family: heterosexual Mom and Dad married once-and-for-all-time, raising their biological children in a house down the street from their Christian church. But Hillary is talking about the actual families that live in America: households of people related in all sorts of ways, who are struggling to get by and to achieve their full potential.
  • To maintain America’s leadership for peace, security, and prosperity. This part would fit in most Republican speeches, minus the endorsement of diplomacy. Most of my disagreements with Clinton are in defense and anti-terrorism, but I have to admit she is probably more in tune with the country than I am.
  • To reform our government and democracy so that it works for everyday Americans. More on this in the voting-rights speech, where she goes into detail about fighting the Republican efforts to suppress voting. But there’s also campaign finance reform: “We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people. We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote rather than every corporations right to buy elections. If necessary I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”

The Economics Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

The basic principle is unchanged since Bill’s presidency: “If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead.” Hillary describes this as the “basic bargain” of our society.

The most fundamental liberal/conservative battle of frames revolves around who the poor are. Republicans push a Makers vs. Takers frame, in which the poor are moochers. A government safety net should keep them from dying in the streets, but leave them miserable enough that they will get off their asses and work. As Paul Ryan put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

When that frame takes hold, Democrats lose: We become the people who want to tax away your hard-earned money and give it to the moochers, who could succeed if they tried, but don’t bother because life in the government hammock is too pleasant.

In the Democratic frame, the poor do work hard, but life at the bottom of society is so arduous that it’s difficult to do more than survive day-to-day. If we want poor people to invest effort in building a future for themselves and their children, we need to make their lives a little easier, and check that the uphill roads we expect them to travel are still open.

The Clintons have specialized in co-opting Republican rhetoric, as in the “work hard” above. Here’s another example:

I firmly believe that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But that’s hard to say if there aren’t enough jobs for people that we’re trying to help lift themselves out of poverty.

She steals Republican rhetoric around “growth” and organizes her own economic proposals around three themes: strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.

Hillary critiques the Republican growth prescription like this:

For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at top by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules, it will trickle down, it will trickle down to everyone else. Yet every time they have a chance to try that approach, it explodes the national debt, concentrates wealth even more, and does practically nothing to help hard-working Americans.

Her view is that strong growth depends on a large and vibrant middle class. “Inequality is a drag on our economy.” So anything that blocks people’s rise into the middle class is a growth problem. So her growth agenda involves equal pay for women, legal status for immigrants, and child care for working parents. It also requires investment in productivity by both the private and public sectors. The tax code should encourage private investment (and discourage moving jobs overseas), and government should finance an “infrastructure bank” to build and maintain airports, roads, a better electrical grid, and world-class internet (which we don’t have now). And it requires encouragement of the clean energy sources we’ll need in the future.

These investments will create millions of jobs, save us money in the long run and help us meet the threats of climate change.

Making “strong” and “fair” separate points is really more rhetoric than substance, because she believes they go together:

You can’t have one without the other. We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness. We need both.

The fairness part of the speech covers increasing the minimum wage. (She hasn’t committed to a national $15 rate, which I see as a combination of her wonkishness and commitment to political possibility. As a wonk, she knows that the minimum wage should vary according to the local cost of living. A $15 rate probably won’t hurt employment in big cities, but in rural Iowa it might. So politically, $15 is not the hill she wants to die on.) Also: encouraging unions and profit sharing, defending and “enhancing” Social Security, shifting more of the tax burden back onto the rich, setting “a high bar on trade agreements” (though she still hasn’t taken a clear position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and “seeing every 4-year-old in America have access to high quality pre-school in the next 10 years.” She promises more specific proposals on student debt and K-12 education in a later speech.

The long-term growth portion of the speech focuses on Wall Street, whose focus on quick profits through financial manipulation is largely responsible for the collapse of 2007-2008.

To the extent that such behavior was criminal, she wants to prosecute it:

There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior. And while institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong, and on my watch it will change. … Too big to fail is still too big a problem … and we will prosecute individuals as well as firms when they commit fraud or other criminal wrong-doing.

She wants to defend the Dodd-Frank reforms, get more of a regulatory handle on “the shadow banking system”, provide tax credits for businesses that invest in their workers, and reform the capital gains tax to encourage more long-term investment. (The details of that came out later.)

The Voting Rights Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country. Because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other. … I call on Republicans at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.

… We need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy an election of a corporation.

Proposals:

  • Repair the Voting Rights Act to restore the pre-clearance procedures thrown out by the Supreme Court.
  • Expand absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
  • Ensure that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a vote.
  • At least 20 days of in-person early voting, including weekend and evening hours.
  • Universal, automatic voter registration when people turn 18, unless they opt out.

What Clinton has going for her. In resume terms, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified candidates ever. She had an unofficial-but-central role in her husband’s governorship and presidency. She served eight years in the Senate, and four as Secretary of State. (I recommend Hard Choices as a world tour of American policy. It’s organized by region, so you get a country-by-country review of America’s foreign relations during Obama’s first term. By the time you’re finished, you’ll probably know more about America’s challenges abroad than most Republican presidential candidates do.)

But experience is only a face-card in politics if you know how to play it. John McCain could never make it work against Obama, primarily because McCain always seemed like the one more likely to make some rash, spur-of-the-moment decision. I think Hillary will know how to use it, particularly against a national neophyte like Bush or Walker. In debates, she’ll spring the proper I-was-there story about Putin or Bin Laden at just the right moment, and it will be effective.

Where I wish for more. The progressive case against Hillary is that the current crisis doesn’t call for making the best deal possible with the powers that be, it calls for revolutionary change. Wall Street, the fossil fuel companies, the billionaires buying our elections — that whole power structure has to go. Just changing course from center-right to center-left won’t save our economy, our society, or the planet.

In foreign policy and defense, she is too identified with what Glenn Greenwald calls the National Security State. I don’t think she’ll start another Iraq War, but the drone wars in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries would continue. And I don’t see her reining in the surveillance of the NSA.

The trick that I don’t think either Bill or Hillary (or Obama) ever mastered was how to take the half-loaf while continuing to raise energy behind the full-loaf vision we really need. Bill Clinton showed how to minimize the damage of the conservative consensus that formed during the Reagan years, but he never reversed it or inspired a new liberal consensus. Neither has Obama, and I’m skeptical that Hillary will either.

At the same time, I think the progressive ire and distrust towards Hillary that I see on my Facebook feed is overblown. She negotiates and constructs compromises — with Iran, with Wall Street, whoever — that’s who she is. It’s a trait, not a flaw.

We could do a lot worse in our next president, and if we don’t elect her I suspect we probably will. But is that a good enough reason to support policies — like drones — that I think are huge mistakes?

So the question boomerangs back to me: Can I take half a loaf in a president? And if I do, can I keep reaching for more later?

So What About Polygamy Anyway?

After same-sex marriage, is polygamy a further slide down the slippery slope, the next step of progress, or a separate issue entirely?


For the last 10-15 years, people who brought polygamy into a discussion were usually talking about something else. Polygamy was supposedly the next stop on the slippery slope we would step onto if we legalized same-sex marriage: Once you start fiddling with the definition of marriage, the doomsayers prophesied, there is no clear place to stop. In the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision, Chief Justice Roberts brought that argument into his dissent:

One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.

Slippery-slope arguments are often a way to create flashy distractions from the issues that are actually present: If you have no coherent case to make about why a loving, committed same-sex couple shouldn’t be married, you talk instead about legalized polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Maybe no one is actually making those proposals yet, but they could at some point down the road.

On the other hand, some slippery-slope arguments actually are prophetic. In his Lawrence dissent in 2003, Justice Scalia warned:

This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Twelve years later, here we are.

And sometimes, when we look back on prophets of doom, our modern eyes see them as unintentional prophets of progress. The downward slide they feared, we recall proudly. For example, shortly after the Civil War, Rev. R. L. Dabny published a retrospective justification of slavery and secession: A Defence of Virginia. In it he warned the North of the horrors its abolitionist notions would ultimate bring to pass:

But other consequences follow from the abolitionist dogma. “All involuntary restraint is a sin against natural rights,” therefore laws which give to husbands more power over the persons and property of wives, than to wives over husbands, are iniquitous, and should be abolished. The same decision must be made upon the exclusion of women, whether married or single, from suffrage, office, and the full franchises of men. … But when God’s ordinance of the family is thus uprooted, and all the appointed influences of education thus inverted; when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!

Wives owning property! Women voting and running for office! Surely society must collapse from the unnatural strain of such abominations. Why didn’t we listen when Dabny warned us? If only we’d kept blacks in slavery, we could have avoided all this.

[You knew that was sarcasm, right?]

So OK: But for a few dead-enders, same-sex marriage is a done deal now. So polygamy’s usefulness as a slippery-slope horror is over. But are the predictions correct? Is that where we’re heading next? And if we get there, will it be a downward slide or an upward climb?

In Politico Magazine, Fredrik deBoer got right to work with “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy“. Jonathan Rauch then answered with “No, Polygamy Isn’t the Next Gay Marriage“. And deBoer responded on his blog with “every bad argument against polygamy, debunked“. Another worthwhile piece promoting polygamy (with a better collection of links) is William E. Smith’s “Who’s Scared of Polygamy?” on Religion Dispatches.

I’m not going to take a pro or con position, but I would like to shape the discussion a little.

If you’re worrying (or hoping) that some judge will legalize polygamy next week, stop. Think about how hard it would have been to implement same-sex marriage during the Washington administration: At the dawn of the American Republic, men and women had different legal rights, and husband and wife were unequal legal roles. Same-sex marriage would have been absurd then, because women were legally incapable of playing the husband role, and before they could become wives, men would have to give up inalienable constitutional rights. To make same-sex marriage legal then, the whole legal relationship of men and women — which was embedded in countless laws — would have had to change.

But everything was different by 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered the question. Massachusetts had passed an Equal Rights Amendment into its Constitution in 1976, so men and women were equal under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Louisiana’s Head and Master law in 1981, so husband and wife were legal equals. All that really had to happen to make same-sex marriage a reality was to change the forms from Husband and Wife to Spouse and Spouse.

(You can accurately describe American marriage after 1981 in a lot of ways, but “traditional marriage” is not one of them. I don’t know of any traditional society where husbands and wives have been equal under the law.)

Polygamy today resembles same-sex marriage in the Washington administration. Changing the forms to allow an indefinite number of spouses wouldn’t come close to defining it. Are we talking about Biblical (or Mormon) polygamy, where one man marries several women? Jacob and Leah and Rachel, say, or Solomon with his “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines“? Or a group marriage where everybody listed is married to everybody else? Or maybe a chain marriage, where Bob marries Carol marries Ted marries Alice, but Bob and Alice are just friends? Or is some central couple the prime relationship, with other spouses secondary? The possibilities are endless, and the law would have to account for them.*

However you picture it, giving polygamy legal recognition would mean establishing legal infrastructure to answer questions that don’t come up in binary marriages. In a group marriage, can one spouse divorce the others, or does the whole relationship dissolve and need to be reformed? What’s the property settlement look like? Do all spouses have equal rights and responsibilities regarding the children, or do biological parents have a stronger legal bond? In a Biblical polygamous marriage, are all the wives equal, or does the first wife have a special role?

In any of the polygamy models, it doesn’t take much imagination to spin out questions that may not be unanswerable, but aren’t answered in any obvious way by current law. Such questions go all the way down to the most trivial level: What fee should a clerk charge for a plural marriage license? Are current fees based on per-person or per-marriage logic? That question never comes up as long as all marriages are between two people, but someone would need to decide God-knows-how-many minor issues like that.

Consequently, a court can’t simply order to a county clerk to issue a three-person marriage license. The judge would have to rewrite big chunks of the legal code, which a judge is not equipped to do, even if one thought he or she could get away with asserting that kind of power.

Is polygamy a legal right? A somewhat more realistic fantasy/nightmare goes like this: A judge might find that three or more people have a right to the legal advantages marriage offers, even if the judge can’t say exactly how that right should be implemented. That would have to go through a legislature, which is equipped and empowered to rewrite large chunks of the legal code.

So a judge could order the legislature to rectify the situation within a specified time. The legislature would probably refuse, and then the judge could assess damages against the state, which the governor could refuse to pay, and from there who knows where it all goes.

A key part of that scenario, though, is that the legal argument for a right to polygamy is sitting there inside the same-sex-marriage jurisprudence, waiting for some bold judge to notice it. In spite of John Roberts’ dissent, I don’t think that’s true.

In order to have this discussion, though, we need to set aside the particular opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, which really is as bad as the dissents claim. (I covered that when it came out.) It’s not at all typical of marriage-equality opinions, and it contains little in the way of a legal framework that could be extended to polygamy or anything else. I suspect it will have the same kind of influence that Kennedy’s similarly mushy DOMA opinion had: In subsequent lower-court decisions, judges made their rulings consistent with the outcome of the DOMA case, but didn’t attempt to apply Kennedy’s reasoning, such as it was.

The way pro-marriage-equality judges other than Kennedy have approached the issue is through the equal protection of the laws, a position I summarized in May: The opposite-sex marriage laws create an advantageous institution (marriage) and extend its benefits only to opposite-sex couples, when same-sex couples could be included by simply editing the license form, and no credible evidence suggested that negative consequences relevant to the mission of the government would ensue. (The possible offense to God claimed by anti-gay activists is not something the Constitution instructs the government to take notice of. Read the Preamble.) Under those circumstances, there’s really no way to claim that gays and lesbians are being granted the equal protection of the laws promised by the 14th Amendment.

What lies in the background of that argument is that the separation between gays/lesbians and the benefits of marriage is not something the affected individuals can easily fix on their own. Sexual orientation may or may not be innate, but it is not generally changeable in adulthood. And while legally, a gay or lesbian person could enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex, it’s hard to see that as a satisfactory solution. Consequently, because of who you are, you might be unable to take advantage of the marriage laws.

That argument is much harder to make for polygamy, which feels more like a lifestyle choice than an innate orientation. The government set up an advantageous path hoping to induce you to live one way, but you decided to live another way. I would defend your right to make that choice, but I don’t see how it gives you a right to the advantages of the other lifestyle.

Maybe some other legal argument for a right-to-polygamy is possible, but I don’t know what it is. I think you’d need to show that favoring binary relationships is an irrational thing for the government to do, and can’t conceivably lead to any social benefit the government might reasonably want to achieve. Constructing such an argument would be much harder than just cutting and pasting from the same-sex marriage arguments.

If polygamy isn’t a right. If polygamy isn’t a right inherent in the laws currently on the books, then if people want it, they need to convince legislatures to pass new laws. And that means convincing a large chunk of the electorate (who may or may not have polygamous fantasies) that a society that openly includes polygamous households is better — or at least no worse — than the society we have now.

If we’re debating in a legislature rather than before a judge, then I think the burden of proof shifts a little on both sides. To win in court, a polygamy supporter would need to show that banning it is completely irrational. To win in a legislature, they’d just need to argue that allowing it makes more sense than banning it. deBoer sums up:

my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.

As in same-sex marriage, we’re talking about real people doing real things. What’s our basis for telling them not to? I’m not saying there is no basis, I just can’t explain what it is off the top of my head.

On the other side, a legislature would have to debate a real proposal, not just an idea. Exactly what relationships are we giving legal form? How do all the details work? In particular, a law shouldn’t create holes in the system, which would be easy to do. (If my health insurance plan covers my spouse, maybe I could establish universal health care by marrying everybody. Or maybe I could solve the immigration problem by marrying all of the undocumented immigrants. Yes, those examples are ridiculous. But it’s not hard to imagine more realistic unintended scenarios, where groups might redefine themselves as marriages to take advantage of a poorly phrased law.) deBoer argues that the difficult logistics of polygamy isn’t a reason not to do it. But a real proposal would have to deal with those logistics.

In short, I would tell both deBoer and Rauch the same thing: I’m convincible, but I’m not convinced. The anti-polygamy argument isn’t sharp enough, and the pro-polygamy argument isn’t detailed enough. But however the issue eventually comes out, it will do so on its own merits, and will not follow automatically just because gay couples or lesbian couples are getting married.


* I’ve questioned whether I should even use the word polygamy to cover all these possibilities, since it often refers specifically to Biblical polygamy, with polyandry referring to a woman with many husbands. But the articles I’ve referenced are comfortable with that usage, so I have reluctantly followed it.

Trump is the New Palin

Whether you love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter. He’s bluffing.


After John McCain showed the bad judgment to make Sarah Palin a national figure in 2008, every few months a flurry of excitement/panic about Palin’s political future would erupt in the media. She was anointed the early Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential cycle, to the point that Ross Douthat devoted a whole column to denying her front-runner status. When that speculation faded (because by the spring of 2011 she’d made no moves to build an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire), she went on a national bus tour to fan the flames again. She didn’t officially bow out until October, 2011.

Then she was going to run for the Senate in 2014, but that didn’t pan out either. This January she said she was “seriously interested” in a 2016 run, and proclaimed herself “ready for Hillary” at the Iowa Freedom Summit. But in a year when it seems that every Republican with a pulse is running for president, Palin isn’t.

I’ll take some credit for seeing through the Palin hype. After the 2010 mid-terms, I looked ahead to 2012:

Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Sarah wants to be famous and make a lot of money and not work very hard. (If that’s a vice, a lot of us have it.) Teasing about running for office served those goals well, but actually running would require effort, not to mention answering the lamestream media’s gotcha questions, like “What newspaper do you read?

And that brings me to Donald Trump.

Trump is not exactly Palin — he loves hostile questions, for example — but the same phenomenon is at work. He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy.

Like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump lives off his image. That image is all about leadership, so of course he wants to be seen in terms of the ultimate leadership job, President of the United States. If you buy Trump’s image, you think he’d be a great president: making the tough decisions, banging heads together until everybody gets in line, cutting through the BS of the vested interests, and doing the common-sense things we all know need to get done. Who wouldn’t want to call up ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and say, “You’re fired”?

It’s a great fantasy. But actually being President? What a headache that would be. Even the Donald’s hairpiece would go grey.

In previous cycles, bluffing about running for president has served him well. But Trump understands something that seems to have escaped Palin: To keep people interested, you have to keep raising the bar. Except for a small group of rabid fans, the public has lost interest in Palin, because we’ve seen it all before. So she can hint about running, but until she starts acting like a serious candidate — building an organization, appearing in debates, pushing some signature issues beyond the buzzword stage, and so on — nobody is going to pay much attention.

If Trump hinted about a 2016 race and then backed away from it, nobody would pay attention to any future bluffs. So he raised the bar: This time he actually declared his candidacy, and he’s giving speeches and interviews. He’s still not building an organization in primary states or raising money for a serious campaign, but he’s on top of the recent polls (with 18% of Republicans in a very divided field), and he’ll probably be on the stage in August when the first debate happens. Chances are good he’ll get a lot of attention during that debate and be in the headlines the next morning.

A big piece of the current bluff is that he doesn’t need to raise money: He’s very, very rich — as he keeps telling us — and so he can self-finance.

And that’s where the bluff is going to break down. The kind of campaign he’s run so far — flying around and giving speeches — isn’t very expensive. The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He’s not doing either.

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

That’s not an investment any more. It would take maybe $100-200 million to win the Republican nomination, and even more to run a serious third-party campaign in the fall if he isn’t nominated. That’s money he can never get back.

And I don’t even believe he has it. Trump’s empire has always been a precarious structure built on debt. (That’s why he’s been involved in four bankruptcies.) Whatever he might be worth on paper, he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of ready cash available to blow on a whim.

So this campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.

You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot

Throughout American history, most bigots have been nice folks who had sincere religious reasons for treating other people badly.


Social conservatives were all over the airwaves and print media this week, explaining how and why the battle over marriage equality is not over. The Supreme Court may have spoken, but the other branches of government, they promised, could still step in somehow, if we elect the right people. Or county clerks could just refuse to issue licenses. Or ordinary people could practice civil disobedience in some unspecified way. There are, Glenn Beck has promised us, ten thousand pastors willing to “go to prison or to death” over this issue (though exactly what charges will brought against them or who might try to kill them is a bit vague).

To me, the most revealing moment of this Alamo-like refusal to surrender came when Texas Senator Ted Cruz was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show. Cruz was defending the “religious freedom” of Texas clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, when Guthrie made an analogy:

GUTHRIE: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
CRUZ: There’s no religious backing for that.

Religion and interracial marriage. To anyone who remembers the 1960s or has read the history of interracial marriage (or civil rights in general), Cruz’ response is simply ridiculous. Opposition to interracial marriage was constantly expressed in religious terms.

For example, the reason the Supreme Court had to decide Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide in 1967, was that when Richard and Mildred Loving tried to get their conviction for miscegenation overturned (so that they could legally come back to Virginia), Judge Leon M. Bazile was having none of it:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Judge Bazile’s decision says nothing about hating black people or even interracial couples. Yahoos on the street might have taunted Richard Loving as a “nigger lover”, but the judge did no such thing. He just saw the sense in a Virginia law that upheld God’s plan for the races.

Segregation. Opposition to school desegregation could be similarly respectful and devout. In 1958, Rev. Jerry Falwell preached a sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?”. (Like all of Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons, this one is sadly unavailable online. Perhaps Liberty University might want to rectify this.) In it, he expressed his religious objection to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

That polite-but-concerned religious defense of segregation goes all the way back to 1867, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court OK’d segregated passenger trains. Chief Justice Daniel Agnew wrote:

We declare a right to maintain separate relations, as far as is reasonably practicable, but in a spirit of kindness and charity, and with due regard to equality of rights, it is not prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts.

Slavery. Even slavery had religious justifications, and the breakup of the Union was presaged by the splits in major religious denominations between Northern churches who found slavery immoral and Southern churches who taught that it was part of God’s plan. As Josiah Priest wrote in 1852:

“If God appointed the race of Ham judicially to slavery, and it were a heinous sin to enslave one, or all the race, how then is the appointment of God to go into effect? …. God does never sanction sin, nor call for the commission of moral evil to forward any of his purposes; wherefore we come to the conclusion, that is is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner.”

Hatred of men, or love of God? Like most people who oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians today, past opponents of racial equality were not necessarily the screaming haters we see in the more dramatic videos from the civil rights movement. Far more were sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone. They just held a sincere belief — “in a spirit of kindness and charity”, they would tell you — that blacks were an inferior race who were better off among their own kind, or perhaps under the “tender, fatherly and thoughtful” guidance of a white master.

Most believed that God agreed with them, and could cite you chapter and verse to prove it. Freeing the slaves, desegregating the schools, allowing interracial marriage — at the time, those changes were all seen as aggressions against the religion of large numbers of American Christians.

And it is a mistake to think that such beliefs are dead relics of an era long past. There are still white supremacist churches today. As the web site of Thomas Robb Ministries in Harrison, Arkansas puts it:

For the mission God has bestowed upon His chosen people, the white race, he requires their separation.  They must honor their heritage, not despise it. Other races must honor their heritage as well. In a well ordered world, this is God’s way.

Granted, such groups are small compared to the Catholics or Southern Baptists. But your First Amendment rights don’t depend on the size of your congregation. If the religious freedom Ted Cruz wants for himself applies to Thomas Robb’s parishioners as well, then of course the county clerk must be able to refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple.

Conservatism and progress. It’s not hard to see why Cruz doesn’t want to remember or identify with the historical tradition of social conservatism: When we look back from today’s perspective, we see that the slavers and segregationists were wrong. Most of them were probably very nice people if you met them in the right circumstances, but they were wrong. They had sincerely held beliefs that were firmly anchored in their understanding of Christianity, but they were wrong.

So hardly anybody wants to claim their legacy today.

That’s the general pattern of social conservatives and progress: Eventually, progress catches up to them as well, so they can look back and see that the previous revolution in social practices and public morality was justified. The slaves should have been freed. Blacks should have been served at the Greensboro lunch counter. Women should be allowed to vote and run for office and enter the professions. (I didn’t get into the religious arguments for keeping women in the kitchen, but trust me, they were plentiful, and are also still with us.)

But this time it’s different! It always is. With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.

Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They’re nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don’t hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today’s amoral radicals from upsetting God’s appointed order.

In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them. The analogy with Josiah Priest and Chief Justice Agnew and Judge Bazile and the young Jerry Falwell (who later reversed himself, removed his segregation sermons from circulation, and quietly pretended he had never believed anything else) could not be more apt.

Bigotry is not the same as hate. Bigotry just means believing that certain groups of people do not deserve the same kind of consideration you want for yourself. Their suffering and distress doesn’t count, or they must have brought it on themselves in some obscure way. You don’t have to hate those people any more than you hate your dog when you keep him penned in your yard, or hate your children when you make them eat something they hate. (The analogy of parents and children, in fact, was often applied by pro-slavery writers to the master/slave relationship. Husbands, similarly, needed to make decisions for their wives, because women were pure but unworldly creatures. That’s what men loved about them.)

I don’t know precisely why Ted Cruz or the four dissenting judges in Obergefell believe that gays and lesbians don’t deserve the equal protection of the laws, but I doubt hate has much to do with it. It doesn’t have to. The Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses — I’ll bet they’re nice people with sincere beliefs. But they’re also bigots.

Conservatives blanch in horror at that word, when someone applies it to them. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he imagines this dystopian future:

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

How unfair, that those who find their neighbors’ relationships unworthy might themselves be examined and found wanting. How unfair, that they might be lumped together with the past bigots they so closely resemble. Don’t we understand that it’s different this time? That these are nice, thoughtful people of sincere beliefs?

We understand quite well.

Hidden residue. On the surface, bigotry against gays and lesbians may seem unrelated to racial bigotry. But when you deny your unattractive roots rather than repent and atone for them, their influence can linger in the back of your mind, occasionally peeking out at inopportune moments.

In an Alternet article picked up by Salon, Tim Wise called attention to the lingering racial bigotry implicit in some prominent denunciations of the recent marriage-equality ruling. Congressman Louie Gohmert, for example, warned of divine retribution:

God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn [from America] as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear. I will do all I can to prevent such harm, but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.

Gohmert is far from the only person to make this point, and his statement contains no overt racism. But think about its implications: God kept the U.S. under His special protection and showered us with blessings while we committed genocide against the Native Americans and enslaved Africans by the millions. But as soon as we celebrate people of the same gender living together in loving, committed relationships, He’s done with us.

I don’t see an alternative to Wise’s interpretation: Gohmert’s statement only makes sense if you assume that the suffering of non-whites is beneath God’s notice.

Wise goes on to discuss another Ted Cruz interview, this one with Sean Hannity. The Obergefell decision coming so closely on the heels of the Court’s refusal to gut ObamaCare made for “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”. (“I couldn’t say it more eloquently,” Hannity responded.)

Put aside the many-people-died events in American history (like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 or the bloodiest battles of the Civil War) and just restrict your attention to Supreme Court history. Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, so I assume he knows about the Korematsu decision that OK’d putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and Dred Scott, where the Court declared blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; and the 1883 decision in the Civil Rights Cases, which gave the green light to Jim Crow. To be some of the darkest 24 hours in the Court’s history, preserving ObamaCare and establishing marriage equality has to rank with those.

Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the suffering of non-whites just doesn’t count. Wise draws his conclusion:

Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.

You don’t have to hate anybody to be bigoted against them. Believing that they don’t count is more than enough.

Summing up. There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation. Throughout American history, most people have been pretty nice — even the bigots. America has seen nice slaveholders, nice segregationists, nice male chauvinists. And from the beginning, we have been a religious people, who could not have lived with ourselves if we couldn’t justify our bigoted beliefs in religious terms.

So we did, and we do. It’s normal.

Bigotry has a long history in the United States. And while that tradition includes haters, they’ve never been the majority. Today’s non-hateful bigots, with their sincere beliefs and their Biblical justifications, stand in a line that goes back to the beginnings of our nation. But the people in that line have consistently been wrong, and eventually even the people further up the line see it.

That’s why they never claim their legacy or own the authenticity of their place in that line. But the rest of us don’t have to humor their historical blindness. Bigotry today looks no different than bigotry 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. There’s no reason to call it anything else.

Slurs: Who Can Say Them, When, and Why

Why President Obama can say “nigger” and I can’t (except when I can)


Maybe the best treatment of racial slurs ever to appear in a movie was this scene from the 2006 film Clerks 2. Randall, a fast-food worker, can’t understand why porch monkey is racist: When his non-racist grandmother used to say it, he claims, she just meant “a lazy person” not “a lazy black person”. After a black customer (played by Wanda Sykes) freaks, Randall’s friend Dante finally convinces him that porch monkey really is a racial slur (and maybe Randall’s grandmother had more racial prejudice than he remembered). But then Randall decides he’s going to “take it back”; he’s going to keep saying porch monkey, but reclaim it by using it in a non-racist way. A frustrated Dante explains to Randall that he can’t reclaim porch monkey, “because you’re not black!”

“Well listen to you,” Randall responds. “Telling me I can’t do something because of the color of my skin? You’re the racist.”

Randall’s obtuseness and Dante’s exasperation are funny, but Randall’s view is not that different from a lot of white men: Why are the rules different for us? Black rappers say nigger all the time, but when we do it’s racist. Meredith Brooks can name a song “Bitch” and Christina Aguilera can up the ante to “Super Bitch“. But when a guy says “bitch”, it’s sexist. A female writer like Lisa Miller can title her New York Magazine article “Hillary Clinton Finally Has Permission to be a Bitch” and it’s supposed to be, like, liberating or something. But when Glenn Beck referred to Clinton — the same woman! — as a “stereotypical bitch“, that was objectionable.

What’s up with that? When blacks and women can say and do things that white men can’t, isn’t that a double standard? And as Randall says, aren’t the liberals who promote that double standard the real racists and sexists?

In a word, no. But in real life — particularly when an example springs up unexpectedly, like Randall’s porch monkey — explaining why can be frustrating. A whole branch of the media is devoted to promoting what I have elsewhere called privileged distress, the feeling among white men — and Christians and English-speakers and the rich and every other privileged class in America — that they are really the persecuted ones. Their supporting examples and arguments and ways of framing the situation come easily to mind, while the explanations of why that’s the wrong way to look at it require some thought.

So let’s do some of that thinking.

Banter or insult? When blacks say “Hey, nigger” or “What’s up, nigger?” to each other, that’s banter. But if a white man like me walks up to a black and says, “What’s up, nigger?”, it’s an insult — even if I’m smiling and friendly when I do it. Why? There’s actually a color-blind rule here that’s fairly simple: An insult can be friendly banter if it can be thrown right back at you.

The reason it can be banter when one black guy says nigger to another is that the other guy can respond, “Who you calling nigger, nigger?” That doesn’t work when the white guy says it.

It’s not a double standard, because the same rule applies to me in exactly the same way. At my 40th high school reunion last fall, we were constantly making fun of how old we’ve gotten. Picture me with a too-full beer stein, and a classmate saying “Hey, old man, you sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” It’s banter, and everyone laughs, because we’re all the same age.

But now imagine that the handsome and athletic young guy tending bar says the same thing to me as he serves the drink: “Hey, old man. You sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” Now those are fighting words. He’s thrown an insult at me that I can’t throw right back. Now I’ve got something to prove.

The same rule applies all over: Fat people can kid each other about their weight. Tyrion Lannister can tell dwarf jokes. It’s not a double standard.

There are no white male equivalents. Sometimes you’ll hear people banter, not by throwing the same insult back and forth, but by using insults that are more-or-less equivalent. Picture two white guys at a bar, taunting each other in a friendly way with dago and pollock.

Some white guys think they should be able to use nigger the same way. The other guy can throw honky or cracker back at us, so it’s all good. Here’s the problem: honky and cracker are in no way equivalent to nigger.

If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What’s the difference?

Usage.

Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you’re a white guy I don’t like. For centuries, niggers weren’t really people. There’s no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.

If that example of the importance of usage doesn’t ring true for you, look at a different example: cow and bull. If you had recently arrived from Mars, where you learned English out of a dictionary, you might think that cow and bull are equivalent insults for women and men: Each compares a human to a bovine of the same gender.

But those words have centuries of usage behind them, and so they connote very different different ideas. Calling a woman a cow implies that she’s fat, lazy, and stupid, probably good for nothing but whelping and suckling babies. Calling a man a bull, on the other hand, is a compliment. He’s powerful and headstrong. A running back can bull his way over the goal line, while someone who gets intimidated out of making a legitimate claim has been cowed.

Likewise, a Martian might think that prick and cunt are equivalent insults: They each identify a person with his or her genitalia. But a prick is a minor annoyance, while a cunt is a subhuman who is only good for sex. You might have an argument with a prick, but talking to a cunt is just stupid.

Limbaugh.

In short: No way, no how can white men banter with nigger. Neither the word itself nor any equivalent insult can be thrown back at us. Ditto for bitch or cow or cunt. A woman can shoot back with prick, asshole, bastard, or jerk, but it’s just not the same.

Taboos vs. stereotypes. White guys like Rush Limbaugh treat slurs as if they were taboos — words we’re not supposed to say just because we’re not supposed to say them, like shit or fuck. There’s no reason for it, it’s just a rule. Worse, it’s a rule that’s not applied fairly: Only white guys get called to account when they break it.

How Limbaugh pictures himself

Consequently, white guys make slurs the object of bad-boy humor. Limbaugh thinks he is being brave and daring when he calls Sandra Fluke a slut. And he thinks he’s being clever when he finds ways to come as close as possible to saying nigger without actually saying it. (It’s like those I-didn’t-really-say-a-bad-word jokes we told in grade school: “What did the fish say when he swam into a concrete wall?” “Dam!”)

That’s what white guys — and a few non-white guys who are trying too hard to fit in — mean when they brag that they’re “not PC”. It’s a James Dean pose: I’m a rebel. I can’t be bound by your arbitrary rules about what words I can or can’t say.

What’s wrong with that attitude is that society’s distaste for slurs is not a meaningless taboo. There are at least two good reasons for it:

  • In any disagreement or discussion, using a slur is cheating: You’re hitting your opponent with a club they can’t use to hit you back.
  • Every time you use a slur, you perpetuate the stereotypes it invokes. Calling a black person a nigger raises the notion — whether you’re thinking about it consciously or not — that blacks are subhumans who don’t deserve equal treatment. Calling a woman a cunt reinforces the idea that women are just good for sex, and don’t have to be treated like thinking beings.

The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it’s ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that saying bitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn’t scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.

I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Words as words. Now, somebody is bound to point out that in my discussion of why white guys shouldn’t use nigger, bitch, and cunt, I’ve used nigger, bitch, and cunt. Isn’t that liberal hypocrisy? Aren’t I just waving my liberal privilege in Rush’s face, saying “I can say it but you can’t!”?

I plead not guilty. There is a difference between using a word and referring to a word. I haven’t been talking about “the niggers”, I’ve been referring to the word nigger.

Why is that OK? Once again, these are not taboos. There’s no dark magic in the letters that is unleashed whenever they are put together. The power is in the use, not in the pronunciation.

That distinction is too complex for children, so we teach them not to use the words by presenting them as taboo. And this creates problems for children, as when the tattle-tale blurts out: “Teacher, Billy said shit.”

Likewise in the mass media, where children might be listening and might regard the speaker as an authoritative example — “But Mommy, the man on the radio said it.” — we insist on circumlocutions like the N-word. But when adults talk to other adults as adults, we need to be able to name the words we’re referring to. Otherwise you wind up in situations like the stoning scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Obama on WTF. So now we come to President Obama’s interview on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron“, where he said:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.

And that caused a freak-out. Fox News’ Todd Starnes was one among many:

It was disappointing to say the least to hear such a vulgarity come out of the mouth of the leader of the free world.

But there you have it folks – this is man who was supposed to usher in the post-racial America. This is the man who was supposed to unite, not divide.

What President Obama said is indefensible. It soils the dignity of the Oval Office.

That’s a reaction to breaking a taboo: It would be appropriate if Obama had said fuck or shit. We don’t want our president saying crap like that.

But look at it in light of my previous analysis: We have a black man referring to the N-word in a forum not intended for children. It’s fine.

Fox’ David Webb raises this question:

Could you imagine if a Ted Cruz or somebody on the Republican side used it, in the same context, what the reaction would be.

You mean referring to it, in a discussion of racism intended for adults? I’d be fine with it.

Glee. What I’m not fine with is what Ted Nugent did: Use Obama’s example as an argument in favor of slurs and offensive symbols in general.

What sort of politically correct zombie could actually believe that the elimination of a word or a flag would reduce the evil of racism?

What sort of goofball could possibly believe that certain words are OK for one group of people but forbidden by others?

That, by the way, is the definition of racism.

I’m sure Ted and Randall could have a long talk about that, but no, it isn’t.

There’s something gleeful in Nugent’s usage of nigger, and that right there is the final test I’d recommend to any white person who’s thinking about saying it: You might think you’re referring to the word in the analytic way I have endorsed. But while analysis may at times be satisfying or even fascinating, it is almost never gleeful.

So if the word tastes delicious in your mouth, if saying it feels like a forbidden pleasure, something else is going on. Maybe you should reconsider.

Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy

By all means, celebrate. But, looking to future gay-rights cases, Justice Kennedy gave us more rhetoric than precedent.


Friday, the Supreme Court ended the decades-long legal debate on marriage equality, making same-sex marriage legal for the entire nation in Obergefell v Hodges. Across the country, supporters of gay rights were jubilant as they read to each other delicious paragraphs out of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. But I have a complaint: Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.

Not in other marriage cases — that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

The DOMA hangover. As regular Sift readers know, I have mixed feelings about Justice Kennedy, particularly on the subject of gay rights. He tends to rule the way I want, and he’s often the swing vote that puts my position over the top. But being the swing vote, he usually ends up writing the majority opinion, and he writes it badly. That’s what happened when the Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) two years ago, which I covered (along with Chief Justice Roberts’ hamstringing of the Voting Rights Act) in an article I demurely called “This Court Sucks“. And it happened again Friday.

The reason Obergefell came to the Court in the first place was that lower courts could not follow Kennedy’s mushy reasoning in the DOMA case. The Supreme Court is supposed to do more than just decide the current case, it’s supposed provide interpretive frameworks for lower courts to apply, so that future cases can be decided without involving the Supremes again. But when Judge Kean was throwing out Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage, for example, he wrote that he had “gleaned” — not quoted, gleaned — two principles from Kennedy’s DOMA opinion. Other courts gleaned other principles and disagreed, so the highest court had to sort it out.

This time, Kennedy has made marriage equality the law of the land, but he’s done it with another piece of mushy reasoning that is a poor climax to the distinguished series of lower-court decisions supporting same-sex marriage, going all the way back to the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts. Instead of following the compelling logic laid out by one lower court after another, Kennedy’s opinion looks like exactly what critics of marriage equality say it is: a judge redefining marriage according to his own values. His ruling is full of beautiful tributes to the dignity of same-sex couples, but short on the kind of step-by-step legal thinking you can find in the lower-court rulings, which I summarized last month.

Due process isn’t enough. Every pro-marriage-equality judge I know of, other than Kennedy, has centered the argument on the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws”. As I summarized:

In practice, that phrase has been interpreted to mean that if the government treats some people differently than others, it has to have a good reason. The more significant the discrimination, the weightier the reason needs to be.

That’s why laws that provide a marriage option to opposite-sex couples but deny it to same-sex couples are in trouble: because it’s increasingly hard to say what legitimate reason the government might have for that discrimination.

… So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

Instead, Kennedy focuses on the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause, and finds a fundamental right to marry in the word liberty. His rhetoric is inspiring if you already agree with him, but if you don’t, his reasoning isn’t compelling. The dissents by Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito eviscerate his argument, and rightly so.

Kennedy’s biggest problem is that the Constitution doesn’t require governments, either federal or state, to recognize marriage at all. (If Oregon wanted to become “the free love state” and stop performing marriages entirely, that would be up to Oregonians.) Liberty traditionally means being left alone by the government, not that the government must help you in some way. So Roberts makes an argument that appears in some form in all the dissents:

Our cases have consistently refused to allow litigants to convert the shield provided by constitutional liberties into a sword to demand positive entitlements from the State.

The question Kennedy should have raised is: Once the State has defined the “positive entitlement” of marriage for some people, what’s its justification for denying those benefits to others? But that’s an equal-protection issue, not a liberty issue.

In short: the ruling came out the right way, but the people who still want to hold out against marriage equality feel vindicated in their view that the Court has usurped the power of the legislative branch by “redefining marriage”. It didn’t have to be like this. Why, oh why, couldn’t Justice Ginsburg have written this ruling?

Why it’s important. The lower courts nearly all used the equal-protection framework: Define a level of scrutiny appropriate to laws that discriminate against gays, and then examine the government’s reasons for discriminating under that level of scrutiny. One of the issues to decide, if you go that way, is whether gays and lesbians are a class that has traditionally faced discrimination, and so how much benefit of the doubt a legislature or electorate should get as to its motives.

Racial discrimination, for example, faces the highest level of scrutiny. As a matter of judicial precedent, laws that discriminate against traditionally disadvantaged racial groups are inherently suspect. Similarly, laws that discriminate against women are inherently suspect. It’s possible that some particular race- or gender-discriminating law can be justified, but a court will not give the government any benefit of the doubt.

The traditional discrimination against gays and lesbians certainly would justify giving laws against them some heightened level of scrutiny, but the Supreme Court has never done so. Kennedy doesn’t do so either.

Pro-marriage-equality judges who don’t invoke heightened scrutiny are forced to give the legislative branch the benefit of the doubt. And so they end up having to argue that same-sex marriage bans are completely irrational. That argument has been made, and was sitting there for Kennedy to endorse. He didn’t.

Going either way would have established a precedent for fighting other anti-gay discrimination: Either anti-gay discrimination would face heightened scrutiny in the future, or there would be a precedent for saying that certain kinds of anti-gay discrimination are irrational.

Instead, Justice Kennedy gave us just this result, justified by a lot of effusive rhetoric that has no further legal consequences.

The “threat to American democracy”. All four dissents lamented a judicial usurpation of powers properly belonging to the democratic branches — which is in fact a fair criticism of the argument Kennedy made. The place for flowery rhetoric is in the legislature or on the campaign trail. But it wouldn’t have been a fair criticism of the equal-protection argument Kennedy avoided.

Dahlia Lithwick raised the right question:

And all I could keep thinking was, “Where was all this five unelected judges chatter when you all handed down Citizens United? Or Shelby County? Why does this rhetoric about five elitist out-of-touch patrician fortune-cookie writers never stick when you’re in the five?”

The most-quoted Roberts line was:

Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.

If you’re a straight person very distant from the gay community, this might sound convincing. But if you imagine yourself in the place of a same-sex couple, it isn’t convincing at all. Would you rather have widespread social approval ten years from now, or the equal protection of the laws today? The answer is pretty obvious.

The comparison to interracial marriage is apt. XKCD draws the chart:

Our fellow citizens are being persuaded of the justice of marriage equality — not, for the most part, by referendum campaigns, but by living in society with same-sex couples. That process will continue apace.

In these the-sky-will-fall-if-we-allow-this situations, most people have to see something in action before they realize the panic-mongers are conning them. As I predicted back in 2003:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Today, no one cares how interracial couples got the right to marry. Most young people have trouble believing it was ever an issue. (Have you ever tried to explain to a teen-ager why his friend’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal 50 years ago? I have.) So it will be for same-sex marriage.

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