Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.
Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.
More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Defining Changes in American Politics…
After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.
Reagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.
The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.
Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.
The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”
Sharpening the serrated edges…
But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.
Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.
Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.
The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.
You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.
Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.
All that is left is bigotry…
Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”
“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”
What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.
The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.
A Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.
The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.
The difficult things to do…
The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.
All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.
Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”
I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.
Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…
David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.
‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”
That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.