Night and Day

If there is one thing I have learned for sure about Hillary Clinton, it’s that she is both better and worse than everyone seems to think.

Worse because of her ongoing paranoia, deceit and iron-fistedness vis-à-vis her quest for the Oval Office.

Better because of her wit, intelligence, compassion and jaw-dropping stamina as they relate to the exact same goal.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I petulantly griped about how Hillary Clinton has a way of getting under your skin even as you find yourself agreeing with most of what she stands for.  How her single-mindedness and love-hate relationship with rules and facts tend to overshadow her finer qualities, even for those who are otherwise prepared to accept her as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Re-reading that article seven-and-a-half years later, I am somewhat alarmed by how well it holds up.  While my writing has matured (arguably), my hang-ups about a potential President Clinton Part II were pretty much exactly the same then as they are now.  They include:  Her penchant for making up stories when the truth is readily available for all to see; her brazen disregard for the rules whenever they are inconvenient; and her tendency, in any case, to exacerbate the little scandals that pop up whenever she is in power, invariably by blaming the whole thing on her would-be enemies, be they Republicans, foreign governments or a White House intern.

All of those quirks still apply, and must forever be held in consideration when one endorses Clinton for president or any other office.  As ever, a vote for Hillary is a vote for all the baggage that comes with her.  And that’s before we get into the issues that involve actual substance.  As the enduring success of Bernie Sanders demonstrates, there remains a great minority of Democratic primary voters who consider Clinton the wrong candidate at the wrong time and who, should she become the party’s nominee, might even stay home on Election Day rather than pull the lever for her.

Against all of that, however, I come bearing news:  Politics has changed a lot over the last two election cycles and we no longer have the luxury to vote only for candidates we like.  When and if we make it to November 8, 2016, most of us will be faced with two people whom we don’t particularly want to be president, but we’ll need to choose one of them all the same, because that’s how elections work.

I know:  This sounds like a “lesser of two evils” lecture.  It’s not, because presidential campaigns are not a choice between two evils.  Deciding to ally with Stalin against Hitler—that was a choice between two evils.  When we vote for a commander-in-chief, the decision is between not just individuals, but two opposing philosophies of how to run the government of the most important republic in the world.  There’s nothing evil about it, but the choice is stark nonetheless—now more than ever before.

If you think there is no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, you’re not paying close enough attention.  If you’re unwilling to vote for either because their candidates just aren’t perfect enough, you’re a child and a fool.

Last Saturday’s Democratic debate drew only a fraction of the audience of any GOP contest this year.  That’s a real shame, because, if nothing else, it affirmed Bill Maher’s observation in 2008 that to see both parties talk, it’s as if they’re running for president of two completely different countries.

Case in point:  At the most recent Republican forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that 9/11 happened yesterday and that terrorism is the only thing worth caring about when it comes to the welfare of the United States and its citizens.  It was practically the only subject that came up, while such things as the economy, health care, infrastructure and even immigration received little more than a passing shout-out from any of the nine candidates.

The Dems spent plenty of time on terrorism, too—the San Bernardino massacre made it unavoidable—but they allocated equal, if not greater, emphasis on subjects that are—let’s be honest—considerably more urgent and germane to all of us at this moment in time.  Along with the issues I just mentioned, these included gun control, race relations, income inequality, college affordability and the fact that America’s prisons are overstuffed with people whose only “crime” was getting high and having a good time.

This isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill disagreement over national priorities.  This is a dramatic, monumental clash over whether the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  The whole GOP platform has been reduced to, “Be afraid all the time, because you could die at any moment,” while the Democrats act as if tomorrow might actually come and we might as well live and govern accordingly.

Is this the lowest bar we’ve ever set in the history of presidential elections?  Possibly.  Indeed, it’s downright depressing that the very act of governing is no longer seen as a given for anyone in public office.

What is far more depressing, however, is that so many citizens seem to think it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, or that both parties are equally at fault for all of the preventable problems that have occurred throughout the Obama era.  Neither of those assumptions is true, and there are tangible consequences to thinking otherwise.

Care for some examples?  Listen to the GOP’s own rhetoric:  If a Republican is elected president next year, it means the Affordable Care Act is in danger of actual repeal, as is the nuclear agreement with Iran.  It means reversing climate change is no longer a priority, along with the rights of black people, gay people, poor people, women, immigrants, Muslims and refugees.  It means the Supreme Court will net at least one conservative justice, which could easily lead to decisions adversely affecting all of the above and more.  It means our “war” against ISIS will almost certainly escalate to include actual boots in the sand, and God knows what impact that’ll have on our national debt (to the degree that anyone cares).

I realize, of course, that America’s conservatives would be thrilled by such results, but that’s not really who I’m talking to right now.

No, I would mostly just like to remind my fellow leftists that there is a limit to what your disgust with “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton can accomplish.  Clinton is most certainly a flawed candidate, and a flawed messenger for the liberal view of good governance.  She is plainly compromised by her close relationship with the financial industry and remains insufficiently skeptical of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.  She hasn’t yet mastered the art of damage control and offers little assurance that she won’t create more damage in the future.  A second Clinton presidency would guarantee a fair share of political nonsense from the day she arrives to the day she leaves.

Know what else it would guarantee?  Health insurance for tens of millions of people.  Funding for Planned Parenthood.  Increased protections for the LGBT contingent.  A more liberal Supreme Court.

And it would guarantee our first female commander-in-chief.  Sure, I know we’re supposed to be a meritocratic society that doesn’t care about race, sex, etc., but let’s not pretend that following our First Black President with our First Woman President wouldn’t be unimpeachably gratifying.  We already know beyond doubt that a woman can manage a country at least as well as a man—perhaps you noticed that, for the last 10 years, one such woman has been more or less running all of Europe—but wouldn’t it be great to have it actually happen here?

Of course, none of this matters during the primary phase of the campaign, where we are now.  So long as Democratic voters still have a legitimate choice between Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Martin O’Malley), they have every obligation to argue about which option makes the most sense for where the party ought to be, and that choice is always a balance between ideological purity and perceived electability.  If you want Sanders as your nominee, you’d best make your case now, before it’s too late.  (I’ve already made mine.)

But should time run out and your preferred candidate lose, realize that our whole electoral system operates on the principle that the party is ultimately more important than any individual within it, which means a great number of people will be forced to compromise some of their deepest-held beliefs in the interest of party unity—because it’s better to support someone with whom you agree 60, 70 or 80 percent of the time rather than ensuring victory for someone with whom you agree not at all.

If total ideological alignment leads to total electoral defeat, then what good did those principles do you in the first place?  Republicans have been learning this lesson continuously since the moment President Obama was elected.  Are Democrats on the verge of making the same stupid mistake?

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Bigotry By Any Other Name

Is homophobia a choice, or are people just born that way?

Amongst all the silliness and bombast at the most recent Republican primary debate, there was the following statement from Ben Carson, who was asked to clarify his position on same-sex marriage:

“I believe that the Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect.  I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.  There is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community.  They shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe.”

In a strong field, that might rank as the most incoherent thing that any candidate has said about any issue.  It would be easy enough to ignore or dismiss it—most media outlets have done just that—except that a) it came from the highest-polling candidate in the race (more or less), and b) it forces us to confront the issues of marriage and homophobia in a manner that is just too interesting to pass up.

Getting right to the point, then:  Is it possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being homophobic?  Can you believe that gay people are morally and legally equal to straight people while also believing that only the latter are entitled to marriage?

I’ll be honest:  I do not find these to be difficult questions.

No, you cannot oppose gay marriage—or any other gay right—without the disease of homophobia coursing through your veins.  Thinking that gays are beneath the institution of marriage is precisely to think that heterosexuals are a superior human species—a view otherwise known as homophobia.

“Defending” traditional marriage is homophobic by definition.  You can’t have one without the other.  To say that these two people can receive a marriage license but those two people cannot is axiomatically to think that the former are more deserving of the American dream than the latter.

Hence the absurdity of Carson’s statement.  He wants to have it both ways, but how could this be?  If you believe—as Carson apparently does—that gay people are entitled to equal protection under the law, how could that protection not include the right to get married?

Officially, marriage is nothing more than a legal contract between two consenting adults.  It’s a secular institution whose broader meaning is determined by those who enter into it.  Conservatives can bang on and on about what marriage is “for”—commitment, sacrifice, procreation, serving God—but the truth is that marriage is whatever each individual couple makes of it.  It is neither possible nor desirable for the government to make those decisions for them.

If you truly thought that all men and women are created equal, then the notion of withholding marriage from gay people wouldn’t even occur to you—just as prohibiting marriage between interracial couples wouldn’t make sense to anyone who believes in equality of black and white.

The reality is that most Americans are adept at holding utterly contradictory views in their heads, and most of the time they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  This has been true since the founding of the republic (see:  Jefferson and slavery) and we can expect it to continue until long after we’re all dead.

The far more interesting trend—and a welcome one at that—is the degree to which homophobia itself has fallen out of fashion.

Even as the country remains fairly divided on same-sex marriage—the current split is 60 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed—very few people today are comfortable with being viewed as anti-gay.  Even as they espouse policies that are obviously and deliberately discriminatory toward gay folks, they are very careful to launch into a “some of my best friends are gay” routine, insisting that their opposition to gay rights should not be construed as opposition to gay people.

It’s a ridiculous and hypocritical stance—an insult to the intelligence of anyone who made it through kindergarten—but it’s also indicative of how thoroughly gay people have been integrated into polite society.

Remember:  It was as recently as the 1980s that gay people were so marginalized by their leaders that, when Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked if the administration was aware of a “gay plague” known as AIDS, the entire press room erupted in laughter.

In the 1990s, anti-gay animus was so strong that Bill Clinton—a Democrat!—was able to sign the Defense of Marriage Act and institute “Don’t ask, don’t tell” without experiencing any real pushback from the gay community because, hey, what other option did they have?

The difference between then and now in enough to give you whiplash.  Not only is same-sex marriage legal from coast to coast, but gay people are so visible in every walk of life—including positions of power—that the straight community has no choice but to treat them like human beings.

Or at least to give lip service to that effect.  A chunk of Americans remains opposed to affording gays equal protection under the law, but—as if taking a cue from Pope Francis—they are far less cavalier than they’ve ever been before, concealing their true feelings behind inclusive and compassionate rhetoric.

Today, you can’t even be a Democrat unless you offer full-throated support for every plank of the dreaded “gay agenda,” and you can’t run for president as a Republican without at least pretending to have a few gay acquaintances and acknowledging that homosexuality is, in fact, a real thing.  (I wish we could say the same for climate change.)

But let’s not be cute about it by letting opponents of gay equality off the hook.

Yes, I am aware of many good people who support “traditional” marriage and, by all outward appearances, harbor no prejudice toward their gay colleagues and treat everyone with respect.  They regard their views on marriage as an honest disagreement—invariably informed by their religious faith—and not, in any case, as an expression of bigotry, intolerance or blind hatred.

Well, of course that’s how they feel.  In any great debate about civil rights, everyone wants to view themselves as the hero—the person on the “right side of history.”  Being several generations removed from when, say, George Wallace could proudly stand at a podium and bellow, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” we no longer allow ourselves to hold prejudicial views without performing an elaborate sleight of hand to convince ourselves and others that we are not the villain in this story.

Sorry, but it won’t wash.

In this era of equality, you can no longer get away with threading this particular needle without looking like a disingenuous nincompoop.

If you’re going to support anti-gay legislation, then you have to own the fact that—whether you realize it or not—you, yourself, are anti-gay.

If you don’t want to be tarred and feathered as an intolerant prude, then quit advocating for a society that withholds basic rights from an entire group of citizens on the basis of their emotional attractions.  That, after all, is exactly what an intolerant prude would do.

If you truly believe, à la Ben Carson, that “the Constitution protects everybody” and “there is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community,” then join the rest of us in effecting a system of laws that actually are perfectly fair to the gay community—namely, laws that don’t care whether your significant other is a man or a woman, because why on Earth should that make a difference?

Show, don’t tell.  Either you believe that we’re all equal before the law, or you don’t.  Sooner or later, you have to pick a side.