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.

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