For most of my life, Democrats have fancied themselves to be the “noble” party in American politics. They were the ones that were really about something, whether that something was social justice, equal rights, civil liberties, etc.. Politics was just the route they were left with to address these things – a necessary evil, if you will. The Republicans, they were the ones that really lived for the partisan brawling, the backroom dealing, and the sausage making, so to speak. Democrats were the underdogs that had to step onto the opposition’s home turf for every game. That’s part of the reason they’ve viewed most Republican successes in the last three decades as the result of their own inability to play the game or the evil genius of the GOP strategists that relentlessly and mercilessly manipulated the messages eventually reaching the American voter. If the Republicans would just stop playing partisan games and manipulating issues to protect those already in power, Democrats could actually govern and improve lives – so went the narrative on the left.
Of course, none of that’s true – few people in American (world?) history loved the political fistfight more than LBJ. The Kennedys were true artists in the medium of the backroom deal. But far be it from me to deny someone credit on a nice job of branding (that Republicans have positioned themselves as small government champions while not having actually reduced the size of government since Eisenhower’s first term is a meaty post for another day). That said, March has been a tough month for the “If we could just get past the politics, we could get to the important issues facing society” brand.
First, the Rand Paul filibuster, which, at its root, was about questioning the expanding power of the executive branch, its utter lack of transparency about what it believes the bounds of that power are, and the right of all American citizens to due process. This sounds like something Democrats could get behind! Right? He was essentially taking a hard line that “this is a government of and by and for the people….and the only way you can hold us accountable is if you know what we’re doing.” Forget just supporting a filibuster, this sounds like someone the Democrats of 2000-2008 would want to vote for….
Instead, a full-throated vilification from the Left, which involved throwing in with John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Yoo. Gutless partisan hackery makes for strange bedfellows, I guess! Here’s a devastating critique of the Democratic response from Falguni Sheth that is really worth a read in its entirety, but I’ll pull out some of the most incisive parts (bold mine):
Yet instead of expressing outrage, Democrats continued to acquiesce to the White House’s radical expansion of executive power. And they turned on Rand Paul, even though his objections should have been shared not just by liberals, but by everyone with even a passing respect for the rule of law.
One could argue that, by hitching the wagons to John Yoo, you are no longer someone with a “passing respect for the rule of law” but I digress. More:
Rather than challenge a Democratic administration in defense of constitutional principles that all citizens should insist be guaranteed, Democrats embraced party tribalism. As Kevin Gosztola pointed out, so-called progressives from Lawrence O’Donnell to Chris Matthews vilified the only politician who was asserting a — limited, mild, patriotic — challenge to the White House’s imperious expansion of unilateral authority. It was a challenge that every single Democrat, conservative, liberal or progressive should have been pushing for the last four years.
And then Glenn Greenwald puts a bow on it:
All of this put Democrats – who spent eight years flamboyantly pretending to be champions of due process and opponents of mass secrecy and executive power abuses – in a very uncomfortable position. The politician who took such a unique stand in defense of these principles was not merely a Republican but a leading member of its dreaded Tea Party wing, while the actor most responsible for the extremist theories of power being protested was their own beloved leader and his political party.
So the Fifth Amendment, a global war without borders or end dates, equal treatment of minorities (from the Greenwald piece above: “if you’re not [an American] Muslim, it’s very easy to dismiss, minimize or mock these issues because you can easily tell yourself that they don’t affect you”), brazen blocking of government transparency…these are all pretty “big picture” issues that the Democrats hastily passed on so they could show their allegiance to Team Blue. It was a masterpiece in partisan-driven hypocrisy. It was so….Republican of them. Or at least the version of Republicans they like to conjure up in opposition to their noble selves.
But they weren’t done! Today Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio reversed his stance on gay marriage because his son is gay. If you’re someone that believes in marriage equality, this is great news – not only is Portman an extremely prominent Republican (he was almost Romney’s VP), but he used to hold some pretty crappy positions:
While in Congress, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and voted for a bill prohibiting gay couples in Washington from adopting.
Ick. But because of real life experiences with real friends and loved ones, Portman came to realize that his old beliefs were misguided and promptly changed them. Isn’t that….how this whole thing is supposed to work? Isn’t that how everyone currently on the side of marriage equality – myself included – came to be on it? Yay? Apparently not. Because to hear liberals tell it, Portman is a self-interested ass who deserves no credit:
Sen. Rob Portman has made headlines by declaring his support for gay marriage after learning that his own son is gay, and apparently we’re supposed to praise him for his new enlightenment.
Pretty rough! It’s a good thing his turnaround wasn’t something flimsy and blatantly political, as opposed to something personal. I’m sure he’d really be hearing it. And imagine if he had done something like sign the Defense of Marriage Act into law – I shudder to think at the reception he would get in a roomful of worked-up Democrats after reversing course on marriage equality….
So we’ll go ahead and throw marriage equality onto the list of Big Issues that many Democrats (not all – just like not all are giving Obama a pass on limitless drone warfare anywhere he pleases) are willing to cast aside when there are partisan points to be scored. This is a big enough deal that it sparked Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post to declare that “the political debate on gay marriage is effectively over”:
Portman is a pillar of the political establishment – he held two different Cabinet posts in George W. Bush’s Administration – served in the House, and was widely mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick. That someone with his profile — his own personal circumstances notwithstanding — would reverse positions in such a high-profile way tells you much about how the politics of the issue are shifting.
It should be great news that’s met with cheers and, frankly, relief (it should be noted, most of reaction from within the gay community that I’ve seen has broken this way), but because he has an (R) next to his name, it’s met with sneers and scolds from many liberal corners. They’re saying “thanks, but no thanks.” Why? Here’s Jonathan Chait in a widely-shared piece titled “Rob Portman, Gay Marriage, and Selfishness” :
It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.
Whoa, sound familiar [nudges you to look back up to earlier in this post]? Remember when Glenn Greenwald mentioned something about it being “very easy to dismiss, minimize or mock these issues because you can easily tell yourself that they don’t affect you”?
In other words, Portman thought about marriage equality the same way white Progressives who don’t get nervous about calling family in the Middle East or worry about being placed on the no-fly list think about domestic drone strikes.
Chait spends one paragraph (out of 12) granting that yes, this is a good thing for marriage equality, the thing that so many of us are (allegedly) hoping for. But you can almost feel his teeth being pulled as it says it:
Rob Portman’s dual revelations that his son is gay and that he has decided to support gay marriage are both a touching story of familial love and another signpost in the astonishingly rapid success of the gay-rights revolution. Just over eight years ago, when Republicans gleefully seized on the gay-marriage issue to mobilize their base in Portman’s own state, it was inconceivable that a statewide Democrat would endorse gay marriage, let alone a Republican. The triumph of the issue relies upon the changing of minds — some thanks to force of argument, others to personal contact with gay friends, colleagues, and neighbors. From that standpoint, Portman’s conversion is a Very Good Thing.
And yet as a window into the working of Portman’s mind, his conversion is a confession of moral failure, one of which he appears unaware.
This last line might be true. But I’m ranking the moral failure of those on the Left who fell (and continue to fall) right in line with their party leadership on unlimited, un-codified, potentially lethal executive power for the simple fact that they “like” the guy exercising it right up there with Portman, if not higher.