Monthly Archives: June 2011

Hold the Phone: Michele Bachmann is Running for President

Hold the phone: Michele Bachmann is running for President.  True, she participated in the Republican Presidential Primary debate exactly 2 weeks before that–and yes, she has been grandstanding for months trying to gather the steam of the Tea Party movement–but now it’s official, folks.

Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) made her bid announcement from Waterloo, Iowa.  I don’t expect the speech to go down as 1 of history’s great statements; on the other hand, it was exemplary Conservative boilerplate–her partisans in particular should be serene.  Bachmann’s formal announcement of her presidential bid was not a particularly crucial hurdle for her; she well-exceeded conventional expectations at the 1st Republican Presidential Primary debate, and has emerged as a serious presidential hopeful.

...Yes, we know, you're running for President. You've been running for President for months now. Photo by Jeff Haynes (REUTERS).

This does not mean she is a serious presidential candidate.  On that dimension her fundamentals still look week, and for the very reason she has a natural constituency with the Republican base: She is a partisan, prone to ideological solutions to a preconceived host of national policy problems and a tendency to speak in conventional Conservative messages.  Anyone who has followed American politics for years knows that neither the substance nor the form that allow a presidential candidate to mobilize partisans are typically the same that allow him or her to inspire confidence in swing constituencies, or expand the party.

This is exactly how you don't prepare for a presidential bid. Photo by Alex Wong (Getty Images).

But while I suspect President Obama could claim the middle ground in the expanded turnout context of a 2012 re-election bid against as polarizing of a figure as Bachmann, this doesn’t mean her candidacy doesn’t present a serious strategic challenge to the President.  If she makes a very strong showing in the Iowa caucus early next February–a possibility already admitted by the talking heads–she will likely form a major faction in the primary, akin to those developed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

"If she could be turned, she would become a powerful ally..." Photos by Jim Cole, Associated Press.

Due to a strong self-representation at the 1st Republican presidential primary debate (as a reflexive Conservative, of course), Bachmann seems to have edged-out pitch-perfectly Conservative but uncharismatic former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as the self-appointed representative of the Libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement within the Republican Party.  She also has strong credentials as a social Conservative, which allows her both to get ahead in the Evangelical Christian-heavy Iowa caucuses and likely to rally the voters of the Christian Right, whom otherwise might drift to dark-horse former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).  (Santorum was once a fair-haired darling of the right, but at his political peak the Republican Party was George W. Bush’s party, more-Christian, more-Neoconservative and far more-comfortable with big government.  Simply-put, that Republican Party is gone.  Santorum comported himself well at the Republican presidential primary debate, but he has failed to distinguish himself in a crowded field where both his ideology and 4 1/2 years out of office evoke doubts.)

Do Bachmann’s strong suits for the primary confer any advantages in the general election against President Obama?  The Liberal Ironist can’t see how–though a lot can happen in 16 months in American politics.  Bachmann’s partisan profile and personal disposition isn’t as likely to appeal beyond regular Republican voters as Mitt Romney’s.  While having the 2nd-largest committed faction of all current Republican Presidential hopefuls–though still a distant 2nd to Romney–Bachmann has little if any obvious means of making a non-partisan appeal to millions of (often inattentive) unaffiliated voters.  While recent appearances and her presidential campaign kickoff speech suggest she can continue to exceed expectations, she remains a weak general election candidate.

She is formidable material, on the other hand, as a running mate.  If former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or even as-yet-undeclared Texas Governor Rick Perry end up as the party’s nominee, they will lack obvious political or personal inroads to the Midwest, where the most uncommitted Electoral Votes are likely to be in 2012.  Governor Romney lacks serious Libertarian credentials and actually instituted the model for President Obama’s Health Care Reform while Governor of Massachusetts.  (This led Governor Pawlenty to refer, shortly before his campaign began to fade into the background, to “Obamneycare.”)  Both men, if they won their party’s nomination for president, would want to demonstrate that they know and care where there party has moved.  And both men would want to campaign competitively in Minnesota and Iowa, 2 States where it seems Bachmann will have an easy time inspiring Conservatives.  Would a Romney-Bachmann or Perry-Bachmann ticket leave Bachmann as just another analogue for Mayor Palin?  No; Bachmann is at core a very ideological figure, but she is also a very serious one.  She has a core of (very Conservative) political beliefs and goals, and to the extent that these qualities can be separated in a presidential candidate, she seems to be running for the sake of these rather than vanity.

None of this is intended to offer assurances, really; Bachmann’s beliefs lend themselves to caricature because they demand little intellectual independence of her, and in the event of a Bachmann presidency, her lack of taste for compromise would likely get her into trouble even with a Republican Congress.  But survival adaptations and virtues are 2 different things, in politics as much as anywhere.

Lose the chart...Wait, no, stay with the chart. Chart with the chart. Associated Press photo.

The Liberal Ironist is Sort of Stunned…

to see the New York State Senate legalize same-sex marriage. The New York State Legislature isn’t exactly known for its powerful stands on principle: Even before there was a United States, the New York legislature froze on whether to adopt the Declaration of Independence at the Continental Congress.  True to form, however, the State Senate only managed to hold the vote about a week into their summer recess. (After all, they have their reputation to consider.)

Point of interest: The New York State Senate is the 1st Republican-controlled State legislative body to legalize gay marriage.

Eric Cantor’s Transparent Gauntlet-Throwing

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), his Senate counterpart in Vice President Biden’s deficit reduction talks, have decided to walk out of the negotiations in response to Democratic insistence that meaningful deficit reduction cannot be achieved without tax increases.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in my experience mostly becomes indignant at the prospect of some good public service being achieved, was as fatalistic about the Republican leadership’s ability to control its caucus as ever: “President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit.  He can’t have both. But we need to hear from him.”

Without the success of the deficit-reduction talks by early July or early August at the absolute latest, there will be no political support within the House Republican caucus for raising the Federal debt limit by another $2 trillion, enough to keep the Federal Government borrowing the money it needs to run between now and the end of President Obama’s 1st term.  The United States would default on its sovereign debt, almost unavoidably causing a crisis of confidence within the financial industry less than 3 years after the last one.  This credit crisis would likely prove more-fundamental, with a rise in interest rates and massive devaluation of the money supply that foreign investors wouldn’t want to hold anymore.  And did I neglect to mention that, on top of this, the Federal Government, after all that worry in the 1st quarter of the year, would stop functioning?

Judging from the repetitive refrains from the deficit reduction talks the Republican understanding of compromise, apparently, is to be willing to discuss with the party of the executive and the upper chamber the terms on which they will give you everything you want.  Their part in the compromise, so far as I can tell, is their admission that they are willing to work-out a deal with the other party to get what they want.

The benefits of the British parliamentary system–where there is no constitution, the upper chamber has little capacity to hold-up the business of the lower, and the head of the lower chamber’s majority party is also the head of government, essentially serving as executive for domestic policy–are cast in sharp relief at a time like this.

Again, as previously, the Liberal Ironist suspects that this is about the Republican leadership earning the trust of their party’s back-benchers and 80+ freshmen.  The rationale seems to be that even political damage for their party won’t result in the loss of their Congressional majority, so they may as well “fight the good fight” in the eyes of their caucus, the chief threat to their own power being loss of their leadership position at the hands of skeptical colleagues rather than a backlash from the broader public.

President Obama should be asking himself at this juncture, What is the point of having power if petulant opponents are simply going to dictate terms to me?  That’s right, I say he should call Cantor’s bluff.  His response to Cantor’s indignant line-drawing on the 1 measure most-needed to get deficit-reduction talks back on track should be, “Enjoy your little temper tantrum.  When it’s over, the adults will have worked-out some tax increases that we want you to have a look at.”

Our best hope at the moment is that Cantor’s recent gesture is akin to the time Saddam Hussein walked out of a meeting with Bill Richardson, then representing the Clinton Administration in talks.  Richardson had been sitting cross-legged, allowing Saddam to see the sole of his shoe–a gesture of profound contempt in Arab culture.  Once Richardson made it clear that he had intended no such disrespect (at least outwardly), discussions continued.  If Cantor’s walkout of talks is merely popular fare, it is in very bad taste, but we all need some entertainment.  If the House Majority Leader is really acting on his own motion, know this: The Vice President had been trying to take the helm in preventing a sovereign debt crisis, and the Majority Leader has just pushed him off of it.  There is no one at the helm right now, and we are weeks away from a pretty ugly patch of rocks.

President Obama Really, Seriously Needs to Lead

“All Presidents start out wanting to be domestic policy Presidents,” Professor Phil Mundo observed with characteristic insight, “and end up as foreign policy Presidents.”  Events abroad have a way of overshadowing (if not overtaking) a President’s goals for his domestic agenda: President Kennedy portended a dramatic vision of national reform but was pulled into the Cuban Missile Crisis and mulling over Vietnam before his Presidency was tragically cut short; President Johnson surely wanted to be remembered for the Civil Rights Act and his Great Society, not for launching the Vietnam “Conflict;” President Nixon, his “Southern Strategy” of Silent Majority-populism notwithstanding, was a Republican who governed largely from the left (as I have previously blogged) and distinguished himself in foreign policy by attaining arms-limitation talks with the Soviets and recognizing Communist China; President Carter promised, post-Watergate, that “I will never lie to you,” and his honesty and good government of the State of Georgia proved irrelevant in the face of ongoing inflation, high unemployment, and a violent Islamist revolution in Iran; President Reagan was seen as the consummation of the hopes of the New Right, but in his 2nd term he conducted a politically-prudent Realist foreign policy; President Bush Sr.’s signature achievement was UN support for and quick prosecution of the Persian Gulf War, his signature failure his inability to master an extended recession; President Clinton hoped to give us single-payer health insurance and integrate gays into the US Military but failed on both counts, instead bringing the North American Free Trade Agreement to passage, promoting humanitarian interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and establishing closer relations with the People’s Republic of China; George W. Bush campaigned as the “Compassionate Conservative” but in less than a year he was drawn into a shooting war against religious fanatics in Central Asia, and a year after that he was drawn into what has proved a costly military makeover of Iraq.  Much like President Clinton before him, President Obama has taken the loss of the House of Representatives as his cue to focus on foreign policy.  So we get advocacy of free trade agreements with South Korea and Peru, UN authorization of humanitarian intervention in Libya, highlighting of the greatly-improved situation in Iraq, jubilation at the killing of pampered terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and a greatly-augmented call on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian Authority based on the 1967 border.

Considering the profound malaise in both the economy and the Federal budget, it’s almost as if Barack Obama no longer wanted to be President.

This is no time for focusing on a foreign policy wish list.  The President has done some good in foreign policy and continues to pursue some noble objectives, but whatever the story may be behind the scenes, there isn’t enough evidence of movement by the President on domestic policy.  I am finally prepared to concede (though I have only been troubled with the thought in recent weeks) that the President’s critics on the Left have half a point.

They have half a point.  The President’s biggest failure is not that he isn’t running the Federal Government like Portland, Oregon.  Even in February 2009 this would have been an equally-rapid path to November 2010; today the Republicans have their largest House majority in generations.  The course of instant gratification many on the Left wanted from President Obama was never available to him.  What he could have done (and what he keeps doing in compartmentalized fits) is take a stand.

Now I’ve plagiarized Paul Krugman.  But for months I have quietly yearned for the President Obama, not of the 2008 campaign trail (who delivered many progressive reforms but crucially failed to put people back to work) but of the 2011 State of the Union Address.  The call to a new national purpose–of the development of a 21st-century national infrastructure, education system, and research sector; the demand for reform of our immigration policy; even his call to see the brave new World of computerization, capital mobility and competition with huge the educated work forces of China and India as a “challenge” rather than a menacing tide…All of these calls inspired me, all of them sounded both like the medicine we needed and a means of triangulating the rallying-cries of a Republican Party reborn in the mold of Libertarian populism.

Where has the talk of our new infrastructure, of immigration reform, of how we (in essence) “gotta compete with the wily Chinese” gone?  Some may say the President had no choice, that the Republicans simply aren’t willing to work with him.  Like all circularities, this is strangely off-point: President Obama should leverage any future budget and tax agreements with House Speaker John Boehner and his restive caucus of Conservatives to work-out a deal to advance his own priorities; after all, the Republican Party has campaigned in overall cuts to Federal spending, only rarely on eliminating specific programs.  Last December the President struck a deal with Senate Republicans on extending almost all of President Bush’s tax cuts in order to achieve their compliance on or consent to almost the balance of his 1st-term agenda; I applauded that deal at the time and am still happy with the result.  The President obviously can’t get everything he wants, but he can and should have a public position on how much he is willing to compromise his own policy goals to reach a resolution with the Republicans; after all, as the House Republicans’ Pledge to America calls for an annual $100 billion cut in spending aside from the Department of Defense and entitlements–and made general promises about restraints on growth in Federal spending–Speaker Boehner has a built-in benchmark against which his supporters can chart his progress.  To the Republican base, the Speaker isn’t just on the offensive or on the defensive, he is advancing and retreating as part of a narrative on his domestic policy agenda.  The President should approach negotiations over raising the debt limit right now and campaigning for November 2012 as one and the same; integration of these seemingly-separate battles would be good strategy for both.  Yes, he can: If the President himself were to take to the bully pulpit to remind us of popular Federal programs the Republicans want to put on the chopping block to defend tax cuts for millionaires and tax breaks for oil conglomerates (which are politically unpopular but which Republicans in State or Federal government are almost contractually-obligated to defend) this could simultaneously give the President credibility of commitment to his priorities in ongoing budget negotiations and rally the support of the public.  Put differently, if he doesn’t have progress in negotiations to show for it, why should the President hold deficit-reduction talks behind closed doors?

Maybe that sounds naive, or even dangerous?  “Just let the 2 parties hash-out deficit reduction in Congress, with Vice President Biden’s input,” you say?  A dark picture is emerging gradually of the chaos such a subcontracting approach invites.  Talks on deficit-reduction haven’t made visible progress in over a month.  Even worse, the Washington Post reports, several Senators are proposing deficit-reduction plans of their own.  We need to come up with 1, after all, lest the United States Federal Government default on its sovereign debt for the 1st time in history.

All of this has some relation to the President’s disinclination to lead the debate.  Some will argue discretion if not secrecy plays a role in the deficit-reduction talks, and so it may be that House Republicans and the President are getting close to $2 trillion in savings.  My answer to this is simple: Why haven’t the sticking points in the bill even moved?  Why are both sides still saying they’ll agree to cut farm subsidies and certain Defense Department programs (both wins for Liberals, if you’re keeping track), while Republicans refuse to eliminate tax breaks for oil conglomerates and Democrats refuse to talk serious about the cancerous growth of Medicare costs (both refusals of which represent big losses for the general public, if anyone is paying attention)?  Why should either party want to make an agreement on a 10-year budget blueprint appear farther-off than it actually is–particularly with our economic recovery at death’s door and the stock market plunging again on fear of a US default?

The deficit-reduction talks indeed haven’t really moved since deficit-reduction talks began in early-May–right before we passed the Federal debt limit and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner started his fiscal fancy footwork.  If you don’t believe me, measure the movement towards resolution in these talks from the Washington Post’s chronicle.  From May 5th:

“That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.”

From June 21st:

“The two sides are closest to agreement on proposals such as cutting student loan subsidies and farm programs and facilitating new auctions of the electromagnetic spectrum by allowing broadcasters to reap some of the profit from the sale. It’s commonly assumed federal workers will contribute more to their pensions and that corporations will pay more to have the government guarantee their pension plans. The government is likely to sell excess property.”

I’m not saying Vice President Biden can’t bring Congressional Democrats and Republicans to a durable deal.  I am saying that the Washington Post has taken pains to keep its news content separate from its editorial content, considering how many times it has had to repeat itself in articles on the ostensibly-progressing deficit talks over the past 7 weeks.  After all, no game is less-dynamic than chicken before that crucial moment.

President Obama doesn’t have to make the Republicans out to be the enemy; that said, he should pick a fight with them.  Let the President and the Speaker both bloody their noses a bit; it might be good for them.  A shared golf game is nice, but this is our own economy we’re dealing with and we the people ought to be kept up to speed regarding what they plan to do with it; a little boxing could draw our interest.  The President’s own inclinations are against it, but both his principles and his political self-interest may demand it.

The Gallup Poll does not lie: President Obama’s honeymoon for having bin Laden killed is over.  It’s time for him to take his message for fixing the economy and investing in our future to the public, lest the Republicans 86 it in Blair House–or on the 14th fairway.

Clarifying an Intentionally-Complicated Position on Gay Marriage

I wanted to reply to responses I got on yesterday’s post, about the fight over legalization of same-sex marriage in New York and my own preference for civil unions as a way of sorting-out this extremely-contested issue.  Comments made by posters Kukri and Dodson differ from mine by a hair’s width (of maybe 2 hairs).  In any event, I felt I expressed myself more-clearly in the response, and when I finished I saw I had over 700 words on it, so here it is:

Kukri’s distinction–between the basis of marriage within religious institutions and that of civil unions as authorized by government whose role it is, and not religious groups’ to *enforce* our individual and civil rights–is useful because it reproduces the distinction I wanted to make between the legitimacy of the loving relationships of gay and lesbian adults and the traditional role religious institutions play (our various beliefs aside) in officiating over marriages.  The problem it poses is that municipal judges or clerks (and ship’s captains) officiate over marriages all the time, too–though certainly in a minority of cases.  This way of “partitioning” the issue into strictly-religious or secular dimensions would amount, in principle if not in practice, to telling traditional couples who happen to marry under a secular authority that they aren’t really married.  The religious Conservatives who have marshaled over the issue of gay marriage haven’t gone that far themselves, and if those who are to be married under their municipality or at sea are told that a status that they take for granted has been revoked, they are very likely to feel a more intense sympathy for gays and lesbians on this issue than they might feel already; as heterosexual couples they are also likely to inspire a great deal of sympathy for the cause of marriage equality.  So while that distinction sounds cleaner in principle than the obviously-political one I accept, in practice I would expect it to make the issue rawer, if anything, than it already is, and result in a stronger push for marriage equality.

This is why I see the “2nd from left” position of giving gay and lesbian couples the full legal benefits of marriage under civil unions while not forcing a legal tangle on an issue that religious institutions should really work-out for themselves, as giving all parties their due.  Governments and employers have no right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the other hand, requiring or even implying that religious organizations should officiate over marriages that both their leadership and their laity view as immoral and illegitimate isn’t a blow for civil rights so much as a disfigurement of institutions which, like our consciences, by rights are free.  Gays and Lesbians might find my preference for civil unions insulting, even cowardly.  That’s not the point on either count: I’m confident that love between monogamous, consenting adults is real regardless of sexual orientation, and in agreeing that gays and lesbians deserve full equality of rights regarding their unions while expressing sympathy for the sense of vulnerability adherents might feel for their religious institutions, I’m saying that giving both parties their due is more-important than being fully in either party’s camp.

On the question of whether religious organizations lobbying against gay marriage in the State of New York have simply trumped-up this fear of liability to lawsuit on discrimination grounds as a last-ditch attempt to deny marriage equality to gays and lesbians, that’s certainly possible.  But this is yet-another reason, though only a weak one, why civil unions seem preferable to gay marriage to me: It seems pointless, in this instance, to speculate about whether leaders of religious groups claim to feel put-upon in good faith.  (If you want to say a group of people are holding this issue up on bad faith, blame New York Senate Republicans; I’ll readily agree with that.)  It seems that we can either concede that religious groups are concerned for their autonomy or call them liars as well as bigots.  The 3rd way is much more-just in that it allows religious leaders to maintain their traditional role in relation to a word–but in that all they are able to keep is that word.  Let the State confer gays and lesbians their rights of union; if religious groups decide they don’t want to take the side of civil rights and recognize loving couples that want to hold their rites of passage within a faith, let the leaders of that faith decide to close the door, and let the State protect the couple’s privilege to bind their lives together in their own way.  It might be called cabbage instead of marriage, but where it is necessary and expedient gays and lesbians will find their own traditions.

Civil Unions: Splitting the Difference on Gay Marriage–on Principle

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made the legalization of gay marriage a major goal for his 1st year in office.  Whether he gets it–an early indicator of his influence over the often-divided New York Legislature–rests on his ability to make a conciliatory gesture to the measure’s implacable opponents.  Gay marriage as a concept rests on its opponents’ conceptual terrain.

It might surprise readers to know that the Liberal Ironist supports civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage.  While this may sound wishy washy or even over-analyzed, I have always found it more-helpful to assume the general Conservative premise–that marriage is a sacrament (not in the sense that it unites us with any divine power or authority, which nothing can do, but in that Americans generally regard it as a sacrament) and thus that the expansion of the term to unions preponderantly unrecognized by religious institutions would only achieve a civil right at the cost of violating both freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly.  I’ve preferred civil unions as a meaningful way around a conflict between the law’s respect for gay and lesbian unions and concerns of religious groups for their own autonomy and prerogatives.  This has been my position for as long as this issue has been prominent on the American political agenda.  Aside from the politically-unlikely repeal of the Constitutionally-suspect 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, however, the Liberal Ironist also agrees with the cautious position of many recent Democratic Presidential hopefuls this as an issue properly left to the various States–however unsympathetic or regressive they may be towards the issue.  Let Massachusetts be Massachusetts and Arizona be Arizona.  (The many States which have passed constitutional amendments prohibiting all legal benefits towards same-sex couples, however, have gone pretty far to showcase hostility towards homosexuality; the precedent of civil unions laws in a slowly-growing number of States may eventually legitimize court challenges to such blanket bans.)  Some on the progressive left have mocked Democratic candidates who have made this distinction for taking a political dodge on a civil rights issue; I positively prefer the distinction between the law and religious tradition that civil unions allows.

Map credit: StephenMacmanus, Wikimedia Commons.

New York State is one of only 3 States (the other 2 being Rhode Island and New Mexico) that haven’t taken any position on the issue of marriage equality.  An interesting variety of positions towards this social question are now embodied in the laws of various states, running the full range from the legalization of gay marriage by the State legislature and governor to a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil union benefits approved by popular referendum.  Several states have either statutory or constitutional bans on gay marriages and offer extensive gay civil unions rights at the same time.  This latter combination, strange as it sounds, is the law of the land in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawai’i, Illinois, and Delaware.  Symbolically-offensive as it must be for some gays and lesbians, this position at least had an aspect of “positive neutrality” to it, establishing legal respect for gay unions and the prerogatives of religious institutions.

New York has a somewhat-unique partisan situation.  Having been both the largest state and a swing state roughly until the 1960s-1970s migration to the Southern and Western “Sunbelt” (which immediately preceded the Republican Party’s long political ascendancy beginning in 1980), New York used to be the dominant fixture in American politics–rather than a Democratic political base and major bipartisan financier for national elections.  When New York City was consolidated from 5 counties in 1898, much of the Bronx and most of Queens and Staten Island (previously known as Richmond County) was rural, but Manhattan and much of the Bronx and Brooklyn was already as developed as it is now; as a consequence most of New York State’s population lived in New York City!  To allay the concerns of New York’s (Republican) rural residents, the New York State Senate was apportioned in a way that gave a disproportionate share of districts to the outlying rural areas, balancing a rural-Republican State Senate against a New York City–Democratic State Assembly.  This was unconstitutional, of course, but through a series of court challenges New York has been delivered a State Senate that still has disproportional suburban, exurban and rural (and thus Republican) representation.  Considering the vast post-World War II suburbanization trend (and New York City’s staggering loss of 1 million people in the 1970s, a development from which it only really recovered in the mid-1990s) the majority of New York’s population and a large share of its wealth has shifted out of New York City, thus making the Republican-favoring contrivance of its State Senate both less-justifiable in principle and harder to reform in practice.  This contrivance that forces regular bipartisan compromise, however, is probably what explains New York’s lack of any policy towards gay marriage.

While Governor George Pataki, a moderate Republican, passed significant legal protections against anti-gay discrimination in 2002, New York continues to have no constitutional or legal policy towards gay marriage, and along with Rhode Island and New Mexico is only 1 of 3 states to have such a record of political inactivity on this issue.  New York, Maryland and New Mexico do all recognize same-sex marriages performed out-of-state, due to court rulings.  (Having such an underlying Liberal and Democratic political disposition, New York should presumably have recognized gay marriage or instituted gay civil unions like most of neighboring New England or New Jersey.)  Back in 2009 a vote to institute gay marriage failed when the State Senate voted down the bill that passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly.  At that time the Assembly was solidly-Democratic as ever, and the Governor, David Patterson, was a Democrat.  But the State Senate then was also Democratic–an unprecedented event in the modern period.  What makes the situation different now is an ambitious new governor who has campaigned aggressively for this cause, and the prospect of assuaging the concerns of Conservatives that religious organizations would have to recognize gay marriages due to lawsuits pressed under New York’s new law.

What’s all this got to do with gay marriage?  Sorry, I was just getting to that: Leaders of Conservative religious organizations have issued an objection to New York’s pending bill to legalize gay marriage.  These objections have held the legislation up for a week now–into the first 2 days of what is supposed to be the Legislature’s summer recess.  This objection is that it will open individual religious organizations to lawsuits by gays and lesbians demanding sanction of homosexual marriages from the religious group of their choice–in effect, a violation of the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of religious organizations in favor of the 14th Amendment rights of gays and lesbians.

This objection may be the expression of an understandably intense fear by these religious group leaders that they may risk losing their autonomy and legitimacy in the name of a political good–equality–of 2nd-order importance to the morality of the faith itself.  It might also simply be the last ploy available to Conservatives to prevent the institution of gay marriage in New York–essentially, an insincere attempt by religious leaders to cast themselves as the victims when they are the ones dictating their moral preferences to a minority.  In the former case, sympathy and concern for religious organizations is in order; it is one thing to call a Conservative religious organization small-minded, repressive, bigoted, or even cruel—and another thing to use the force of law to require them to officiate over proceedings they consider illegitimate and immoral.  Civil Unions allow us a way around that.  If the expressed concern for sacramental autonomy is just a pretense, civil unions trivialize Conservative insistence that marriage is supposedly defined by God as being between a man and a woman: Create the legally-protected new category and let same-sex couples, their friends and their families through their personal practice demonstrate their significance.

Do civil unions make granting the legal rights of marriage to gays and lesbians more-acceptable to Conservatives?  The somewhat-faster spread of civil unions, including in states with gay marriage bans, indicates that this is so, but that isn’t the primary reason why the Liberal Ironist is inclined to prefer them.  This is about mutual respect between equality before the law and freedom of conscience.  Both are important, and one or the other (usually equality before the law) gets glossed-over in the play over this debate.  In this case, a politically-expedient hedge can also be a principled distinction.