REACTIONARIES RETRENCH: HOMOSEXUALITY SHOULDN’T DISQUALIFY YOU FROM JUDGING, JUST FROM MARRYING

Jeff Sessions – who couldn’t get his own judicial nomination through a GOP Judiciary Committee even after flip-flopping to the correct position on whether the NAACP or the KKK poses a greater threat to the Republic – is now tying himself in knots over whether he would have a problem with a gay Supreme Court nominee per se, or just with one who believed gay people should have the same rights as everyone else. I’m sure when Strom Thurmond voted against Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Court, it had nothing to do with him being Black – just with him being a Black man who believed Black people should have their equal protection rights protected.

But while it’s funny/ sad/ ridiculous to watch Sessions and Co. squirm in saying first that “identity politics” are bad and then that we should be concerned that a gay nominee would make people “uneasy,” or hear the Family Research Council signal openness to a gay nominee without “pro-gay ideology,” there’s a reason these guys are struggling to say something coherent: Open gay-bashing is becoming less popular in America, but it’s hard to explain why LGBT people shouldn’t have equal rights if we’re not inferior Americans.

It’s not by accident that the right-wing opposition to gay equality is a moving target. Anti-gay bigotry is still prevalent in America, and will be no doubt for a long time. But as Americans, including many who are uncomfortable with gay people, become less sympathetic to politicians saying that there are no gay people, that gay people need psychiatric help, that gay people are sinners, etc., Jeff Sessions has to come up with different ways to explain why he opposes the “gay agenda” – just like he had to come up with new ways to explain his animus towards the NAACP a generation ago.

So the issue is: elitist judges trying to tell regular people what to do (this one gets more tenuous now that more people support same-sex marriage than the Republican party); schoolteachers depriving parents of control over how (and whether) their kids learn about sexual orientation; priests getting locked up for not officiating at marriages they don’t believe in; now Miss California’s Miss America candidacy was judged not just on her body but on (gasp) how she answered a question! Perusing The Corner suggests that National Organization for Marriage President Maggie Gallagher’s latest argument for why LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to get married is that opponents of gay rights will face social stigma as soon as gay people escape enshrined legal stigma. In the 90’s Mike Huckabee was decrying our culture’s decline “from Barney Fife to Barney Frank” – now he’s decrying a gay blogger’s intolerance towards Miss California.

So as more states and more Americans come out for legal equality, expect conservatives to get that much more creative in explaining their opposition as a defense of the little guy (the teacher, the priest, the voter, the beauty pageant contestant, the law professor), that much more eager to declare themselves tolerant of people with “gay tendencies,” and that much more fulsome in their outrage when intolerant liberals suggest they have a problem with gay people.

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A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

THE MEANING OF THE WORD "CRIMINAL"

Media-appointed populist Mike Huckabee reassures CEOs everywhere that raking in the cash while laying off the workers who made it possible isn’t the kind of “criminal” activity that the government should do something about:

In one memorable riff at the Reagan Library early this year, Mr. Huckabee called it “criminal” for corporate CEOs to take fat bonuses while shipping the jobs of ordinary workers overseas, adding “If Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.” In a Christmas eve interview on CNBC, I asked Mr. Huckabee what he intended to do about it. His answer: nothing soon in the way of new laws or regulations. He said he would use the bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the practices and seek increased responsibility from corporate boards of directors.

So breathe easy, rich guys: under a Huckabee administration, the only CEOs who get locked up will be the ones with HIV.

SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.