I haven’t done a lot of pronouncing upon political issues in this column (although I want to point out, in case anyone’s forgotten, I wrote a column attacking Republican Party pandering over the loathsome Confederate flag during the South Carolina primary four years ago [March 18, 1996]).
In part, I try to avoid pontificating because I have less confidence in my political opinions than I do in my literary ones, say. I know this is a rare affliction; I’ve rarely met a political writer of any ideology who has less than total confidence in his or her opinions. The great Murray Kempton was the rare exception, preferring irony and paradox to the assertion of certainty.
But sometimes, as with the Confederate flag issue, I feel strongly enough to overcome my habitual self-doubt. I feel that way about Hillary Clinton’s campaign so far: What a disaster it has become for liberalism. I feel that way in particular about her shocking refusal to break with her husband’s policy on the death penalty and her even more shocking decision to come out against gay marriage.
Because in both instances what she’s doing is more than personal political expediency: She’s branding those two issues as political poison for liberals, as sinking ships being abandoned by … well, the rat metaphor is a bit unfair. As I said in a recent column, I’ve always kind of liked her, thought she was a victim of the lying slob she was married to, that she carried herself with grace trying to make the best of a bad bargain.
But now I think it’s clear she’s becoming the bad bargain, especially for liberals. She debases the issues she embraces (pardon for the F.A.L.N., making Jerusalem the capital of Israel) because she makes it so obvious her position is a matter of pandering rather than heartfelt principle. And she’s bad news for the causes she flees from, making them seem as if it’s suicidal to favor them. What liberal anywhere else in America is going to risk his or her neck on capital punishment or gay marriage if Hillary Clinton won’t lift a pinky in New York?
Yes, I know, it’s always been Clinton “New Democrat” policy to be pro-death penalty. Bill Clinton probably made himself President by racing back to Arkansas during the 1992 New Hampshire primary to demonstrate he wasn’t a wimp, that he had no hesitation about signing the death warrant of a brain-damaged black man on Arkansas’ death row. But why can’t Hillary reconsider; why can’t she use this as an opportunity to show her independence from Bill? Really, the Republican Governor of Illinois, Hillary’s true home state, a conservative believer in the death penalty, recently looked at the situation in his state, looked at the fact that no less than a dozen innocent men and women faced execution on Illinois’ death row since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, recognized that, even if you favor death on principle as a punishment for murder, it’s got to be a fair process that determines who lives and who dies. And that, more often than not, the poor who can’t hire expensive lawyers die for their poverty as much as for their crimes. And so he suspended executions rather than risk killing the innocent. Why couldn’t she support Gov. George Ryan?
Do you really think in her heart she’s a hawk on the death penalty? No, it’s a calculation: It’s more important she play it safe to get elected so then she can fight the good fight on other issues. Those risky issues she’s espousing like “caring for what New Yorkers care for.” The business of caring in general is too important to risk in order to care about the nightmare of innocent people being sent to death.
Same with gay marriage. She’s now, in effect, declared it political poison. If a Democratic candidate in New York thinks it’s death to touch it, who will anywhere? And does anyone believe that deep in her heart she really opposes gay marriage?
And yet last month when she was asked whether she would have supported the ridiculously named Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by her cowardly husband–a law which banned any Federal recognition of gay marriages and permits states to refuse to recognize gay marriages even if they’re legitimized by other states–she said she would have voted for the law. She temporized by saying she favored giving equal benefits to partners in a gay relationship but reiterated that she would not countenance marriages: “Marriage,” she informed us, “has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage always has been, between a man and a woman.”
Well, that breaks new ground, that’s a profile in courage: the definitional defense of marriage. The word has always been applied to “a man and a woman” and therefore it is about a man and a woman, from “the beginning of time,” till, apparently, the end of time. That’s like saying in 1860 voting in the South has always been a matter for white males and therefore by definition always must be.
It would be one thing if she had strong, articulate reasons to oppose gay marriage and expressed them sincerely. But I don’t think for a minute she buys her own sophistry. She’s just selling out gays because it’s expedient, because the polls are close.
There’s something about gay marriage and “tough-minded” liberals. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with an aide to a very high-profile liberal political figure in the state. This was a guy who was not afraid to be out front on just about any liberal cause you could name, anywhere in the world. Tobacco companies: agents of Satan! No pension funds for any company that did business with any company that did business with Sun City. He was down with Little Steven on that! And more power to him. But of course there was little cost to taking that stance, even with voters upstate whose Perillo Tours rarely ventured near South Africa, anyway.
But gay marriage was different, his aide explained. We’re for it, of course , but we just don’t think the time is right for us to get out front on that. It just won’t go over upstate, even here, you know the outer boroughs …
Well, when exactly would the time be right? Probably when it wouldn’t cost him any votes, which at this rate, if everyone calculates that way, is never.
Which is why Hillary Clinton’s rejection of it was so disappointing to anyone, straight or gay, who thinks as I do that it’s not just an issue of human rights but of human kindness to let two people who want to formalize their love in that way do so. Because if Hillary won’t stand up for something like that, who will? If not now, when? Of course, it might cost her votes, she might have to actually try to educate people on the question, risk the valuable political capital she’s reserving for … for what exactly? For the super-important business of “caring.” She just has so much to care about in general, she can’t care about this, either.
Of course, no one could blame her if she found herself recoiling at the institution of marriage itself because of her own experience with the slob husband. So one could understand if she felt extending it to gays was not an unmixed blessing.
But I don’t think feeling has anything to do with her stance either way. It’s just a cold calculation that the cause of Hillary was more important than ending this cruel prohibition.
Call me crazy, but gay marriage always seemed like a no-brainer, bring-us-together issue to me. Not because I revere marriage as an institution or because I was great at it myself (mine didn’t last, but I don’t regret doing it). But because it should be a conservative issue. Conservatives believe marriage promotes conservative virtues, such as stability, responsibility. You’d think they’d favor this ritual of commitment. A way of strengthening the community. Not necessarily in the optimistic sense (we all love each other because we love our marriages), but in the common ground of discontent it will give straights and gays. It seems to me that homophobia is less likely to wither away from people watching well-meaning public-service announcements than from straights and gays all being able to bitch about their marriages together. A republic of common disgruntlement can be our common ground.
But the thing I really don’t understand is the argument you hear repeatedly from conservative, mostly religious fundamentalist, opponents of gay marriage. About how gay marriage is a threat to their marriages. Not just to the institution of marriage or to the definition of marriage, but to their actual marriages. A threat that requires “Defense of Marriage” acts. Marriage can survive Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? but needs “protection” from gay couples?
I hate to say it, and this may seem a bit unfair, but someone who feels his or her marriage is somehow threatened by some gay people in Hawaii getting married has more to worry about than gay marriage. Who would want to be married to someone who was so delicate he or she was “threatened” by gay marriage?
I don’t think this is true of all opponents of gay marriage. I understand there can be sincerely held, if misguided, traditionalist-fundamentalist beliefs that homosexuality is a sin. But this is a religious belief. You’re free to proselytize and convince all the gays you can they’re sinful and have to repent. But if they don’t, you can’t use the state to impose your religious beliefs to deny them a civil ceremony.
But aside from that, it just seems unconscionably cruel to deny the right to marriage to any two people who are foolish enough to risk it.
But let’s return to Hillary Clinton and her professed opposition to gay marriage. And the disaster to liberalism her campaign has been. She’s an incredibly intelligent woman, and I’m convinced at some point, if not already, she has to see what’s happening as she jettisons one liberal principle after another, all for the sake of winning a Senate seat so that once inside she can supposedly be the great advocate of liberal causes. Why not choose on principle to be the great advocate of liberal causes outside the Senate? Isn’t that better than selling your soul for the seat?
Murray Kempton once lamented that what we lack in America is what he called “a Whig tradition,” a tradition of conscientious opposition, a tradition that says winning office short term is less important than trying to win the argument on the issue, change minds and hearts long term.
Instead of making herself into the black widow of liberalism, killing every cause she embraces and abandons, let her be the big Whig. Why doesn’t she stop trying to win the campaign and begin trying to win the argument?
Even when she finds a good issue with which to attack Rudy Giuliani–his idiot demagoguing on hanging the Ten Commandments on the schoolroom walls–she fails to use the opportunity to make the underlying case about church and state that a great liberal could make. Couldn’t she tell Rudy Giuliani: You seem to be ignorant about why the founding fathers of America came here in the first place. It was to escape state-imposed religion. It was to escape a monarchy that forced people to mouth oaths to a state religion they dissented from. We are a nation founded by religious dissenters . Don’t spit on that tradition in a cheap bid for fundamentalist votes, Rudy.
And why doesn’t she just stop the endless pandering campaign and give a half-hour televised speech in which she talks to people about the death penalty and gay marriage? Talks from the heart about how, even though she may believe in death as retribution for killers, the way retribution is handed out allows some people to buy their lives and others to fry for their poverty.
And why doesn’t she make the case for gay marriage as the true face of compassionate conservatism, as a way of bringing us all together?
If she did something like that, she might lose her Senate seat, but she’d get something far more valuable than the dubious right to sit in the same chamber as Strom Thurmond. She’d gain respect as someone who sacrificed personal ambition for principles. Even those who disagree with her would respect her (right now, few who support her respect her campaign). She’d become the Eleanor Roosevelt she channeled. She’d be remembered as a hero of the human rights struggle, not as a calculating pol who won a seat because of her pandering and her victim status. She won’t just drop the Clinton from her name; she’d lose the Clinton in her soul.
If not, she’ll mainly be remembered as the person who drove the final nail in the coffin of liberalism. And the final tap on the final nail will be her clueless refusal to tip that single-mom waitress. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be dismissed as trivial. It reinforces a mostly unfair stereotype of liberals and lefties as people who care about people in the abstract, but who can be cold and dismissive in person. (If you’re on the side of the People in the abstract , you don’t have to be kind to them in particular.) Her amazing response when the stiffing-the-waitress issue was brought to her attention–she understood everything was “on the house”–seems almost like a parodic demonstration of this critique. In principle, yes, it was all free, but the poor waitress doesn’t live on principle or on freebies (what was Hillary doing accepting a freebie, anyway?). She lives on tips. And a final tip for Hillary: It’s not too late to turn around a campaign that is a disaster for you, a humiliating, compromising, failed, pandering, soul-selling, no-tipping nightmare. It’s not too late to turn it into something electrifying. From a campaign that’s about changing your name and your principles, to a campaign that could change the future.