Sunday, January 4, 2004

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – Shut Up?

It used to be that Social Security was the “third rail” of politics – touch it and die. Not any more; now it’s the Fab Five. From the Sun-Sentinel:

WASHINGTON — President Clinton learned early in his administration how politically charged issues of sexual orientation can be when he modified the ban on gays in the military. Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy still stands today, but it cost him politically and subjected him to intense criticism from people on both sides of the debate.

Now, in the wake of a ruling by the top court in Massachusetts granting same-sex couples the right to marry in that state, the topic has become an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. Conservative politicians and organizations like the Family Research Council are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit states from recognizing gay marriages, something President Bush has said he may support.

The Democrats in the race for the party’s nomination all are opposed to such an amendment and favor either marriages or civil unions that would bestow the same legal rights. But Democrats, and the president, are likely to avoid the issue for fear that taking a strong stance will cost them votes.

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The question is whether the issue will hurt Democrats in the general election, particularly in the South, where the party’s candidates have had a hard time competing since the 1970’s as conservative voters have leaned toward Republicans. Gay-marriage support could hurt Democrats with conservative white men, who have deserted the party during the past 30 years, and with black Democrats, who tend to be more socially conservative than others in the party.

Tough choice, eh? Stand on your principles and go down in defeat, or pander to the traditional-values groups to get them to support you and perhaps win.

Lyndon Johnson faced such a dilemma in 1964 with his support of the Civil Rights act. He pushed it through Congress, often cajoling and blackmailing members as only he could do, but he knew it would cost him and the Democrats. It’s said that after the signing ceremony he told Bill Moyers, “Well, there goes the South for the next generation.”

No one can doubt that LBJ did the right thing, and in retrospect it was worth the cost. The Southern Democrats were DINO’s – Democrats In Name Only – left over from their hatred of the Republicans who were “the party of Lincoln” and enforced Reconstruction after the Civil War. Up until FDR and the New Deal the Democrats were the party of the status quo in the South and Roosevelt kept them under control by avoiding civil rights like the plague, leaving it to his wife Eleanor to take the heat for the more liberal feelers his administration put out. (Sound familiar, Hillary?) It was not until Harry S Truman added civil rights to the 1948 party platform – under pressure from the mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey – and desegrated the armed forces that the Democrats were identified with the civil rights movement. Ironically, the Democrats were voted out in 1952, and it was only under the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court (Brown v. Board of Education et al) – what some call today “judicial activism” – that this country began to settle the last scores of the Civil War.

One can only hope that the recent rulings from Massachusetts and the U.S. Supreme Court on gay rights and gay marriage – more “judicial activism” – will be seen in the same light as the history of civil rights for African-Americans, and the lessons learned will be taken to heart; sometimes the sacrifice is worth the effort.