Saturday, December 15, 2012

Democrats: Own Gun Control

Everyone knows that the political winds are shifting.  This is natural.  The political pendulum swings, there are long-term self-corrections.  It's also striking how quickly people, when considered as a very large group, come around to a new idea once a "tipping point" arrives: a big majority opposes legal marijuana for years, until one day it doesn't.  Civil rights for gay people is the cause of a few "radicals" for decades until one day suddenly there's a majority of people saying "Well of course civil rights for gay people!  What were we thinking?"  And those who said "Over my dead body" also have a way of adapting, of revising their own emotional history along with the communal story.  Most of the action here is cultural.  Politically speaking, the bottom line is that someone has to win, not one, but a series of election cycles to turn the battleship around.

A political party, in order to appeal to people's imaginations, needs a coherent political philosophy, a way of looking at politics that is consistent and systematic, and that can be easily understood.  This ideological coherence doesn't make a party necessarily either good or successful, but it helps enormously, as the history of presidential politics since the 1960s shows.  The long decline of the Democrats and the long dominance of the Republicans, the height of which was the Reagan 80s, was characterized by the popularizing of a very clear line of conservative thought with two strands, right-libertarian economic ideas and traditional fundamentalist social ideas.  This combination tapped in to basic American mythology and was convenient for the business community.

The Democrats, meanwhile, easily baited as "socialists" vs. "capitalists," and with a bad relationship with a relatively small left wing (whereas the Republicans had a good relationship with a relatively large right wing), found themselves unable to articulate an overall ideology that was systematic enough to suggest strategies.  They were defined by their opponents as the "tax and spend" party.  Republicans ran on economics and security and won again and again.  But the GOP did have a weakness: to keep the Reagan coalition together lots of red meat had to be thrown to the social conservatives.  Older Republicans like Nixon, Goldwater, Ford and Reagan didn't really care that much about fundamentalist notions about abortion, homosexuality and so on.  But the better politicians among them saw the political benefits of taking up these causes.  Later the Bushes, emulating a successful Reagan tactic, loaded the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy with Christian activists and other conservative advocates.  It was good political insurance for these mainstream politicians.  But it translated into real changes in social policy and into real radicalization of the GOP, and now, naturally, inevitably, there is a Democratic opening.

The breakthrough of 2012 included the reelection and therefore Democratic ratification of Obama, but it also was a matter of Democrats losing some fear, taking some risks, and seeing those risks pay off.  Specifically Democrats chose to "own" (as in embrace fully and publicly) gay civil rights, and to reinforce the party's commitment to women's rights (this was handed to them by an out-of-control misogynistic solar flare of some sort from the Republicans that kept erupting from the mouth of old white man after old white man all year), and, more vaguely, "immigration reform" which has suddenly come to mean doing good things to immigrants instead of bad things.  This show of boldness paid off handsomely for the Democratic Party.  A Democratic coalition based in identity politics shows every sign of being able to beat a Republican Party with a single constituency.

And that brings me to the point of this column, today.  No need to dilate on the point much: the Democratic Party should own gun control.  It should step up to the fight with a clear identity and purpose, not radical, but identifying the most outrageous excesses of the present situation and pledging to take action to reform it.  And put that to the voters, nationally and statewide in many states, and the Democrats will go on winning.  Go ahead, take the chance.  Now is the time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lugar and North Carolina: a low point in the story

The news this morning is pretty dismal. Richard Lugar, the six-term Republican senator from Indiana and one of Washington's senior statesmen, lost the Republican senate primary to Richard Mourlock, a bomb-throwing Tea Party favorite. Meanwhile in North Carolina a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman passed (in a state that had already banned gay marriage). This during a week when Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both expressed their support for gay marriage, a good thing but with the unfortunate effect of setting in relief President Obama's less than forthright position on the issue. The two stories make for an interesting political blend, albeit a rather acidic one.

I'm not comfortable with the political strategy of hoping for bad news. When the "outs" want things to go badly for the "ins" they put themselves in the position of hoping that the whole country suffers. The present temptation for liberal Democrats like me is to hope that the Republican Party continues down its radical path until it marginalizes itself (and it's a fair way gone in that direction right now). But no one should really want that. We should listen to Senator Lugar and the eloquent warning he issued after conceding.

A tough political maxim holds that voters vote for one of two reasons: love or hate. An election where both sides are voting from hate is a dismal thing to contemplate. Now that Mitt Romney has the Republican nomination sewed up we're hearing that the conservative base, which does not love him, will nonetheless turn out to vote because of their hatred for President Obama, and that's probably right. But the reverse will also probably be true: the GOP has become so scary to so many that liberals, including supporters of gay civil rights who are disappointed with President Obama, will feel compelled to vote for him when contemplating the alternative. Rule #1 in politics as in life: you can always make things worse.

As to that it's not obvious (unfortunately) that Obama's reticence on gay rights is a net political minus. The vice-presidency is essentially a political post. One of the veep's main jobs is to help the president win election campaigns. He can throw red meat to the base and take a hatchet to the foe, the dirty work that the president does well to avoid. And Joe Biden is a vice-president from central casting. When he says he's in favor of gay marriage it doesn't move the policy, but everybody hears it. If Obama were to be equally unequivocal the main effect would be simply to tag him at that position; there's not much the president can do about state referendums.

A maddening thing about democracy in a big country, with tens of millions of people voting, is that in a close election the voters who tip it over aren't the political junkies who watch the cable news shows. They're not even the people with more or less established political identities who more or less know which political party they're going to vote for. It's the people who pay almost no attention at all, who couldn't name three of the GOP primary candidates and maybe couldn't come up with the name of the vice-president. They stopped reading press coverage of politics oh, maybe three generations ago. Those people vote according to their own, poorly-developed gut instincts, which is all they've got. And it looks like this is going to be a very close election.