Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Slow Going

Ross Douthat suggests that there is method in President Obama’s deliberate, perhaps tentative moves to win the culture wars.

The outline is simple: Engage on abortion, and punt on gay rights.

The logic is thus: gay rights, in the form of same-sex marriage, is already moving in the direction that the liberals and the marriage-equality supporters want without much effort on the part of the administration. So far all of the changes have happened at the state level with a court ruling in Iowa and bills passed in Vermont and Maine, and soon to come to the attention of the legislature in New York. Mr. Obama’s demurring on same-sex marriage is wise, at least in terms of politics; the anti-gay crowd can’t plausibly blame him for the sudden increase in states allowing the practice (although they will try). As for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he seemed to have learned something from the last Democrat in the White House who pushed the issue to the forefront; Bill Clinton’s immediate smack-down by the brass led to the policy. If it’s going to change, it’s going to be at the pace set by the military, not a president who never wore the uniform but who knows who will have to implement the change. That’s not to say the policy doesn’t need to go; it does, most assuredly. Every soldier discharged for that reason is a loss to both the military and the nation. But if it is repealed under the guidance of enlightened commanders, no one will be able to claim that it was a policy change that was forced upon them.

On abortion, Mr. Obama knows all too well that engagement with the anti-choice crowd provides him with the ability to say that he is doing everything he can to open a dialogue for common ground. It sounds unlikely to try this with a group that deals mainly in debate-stopping bumper sticker slogans like “abortion is murder” and contains members that go to extremes that otherwise would land them in Gitmo. This, like his attempts at bipartisanship with the Republicans, gives him the cover to say that he is at least trying. If the door is slammed in his face, it’s not his fault.

Mr. Obama’s supporters on these issues have every right to be cynical. They have seen all too often a lot of lofty and poetic promises made on the campaign trail go away once the prose hits the reality of policy. And the experience of the Religious Right at the hands of the Bush administration, where they were played as useful idiots for Karl Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority, is still fresh in their minds. They wonder, quite rightly, if President Obama will give them the same kind of lip service in exchange for a tidbit every now and then, knowing that they have nowhere else to go.

Mr. Douthat sees this as an attempt by President Obama to put an end to the culture wars, and by that, win them. “The real hope is a final victory for cultural liberalism, and social conservatism’s permanent eclipse.” I wouldn’t put it in those terms because that says that someone has to lose. Just as we all won something with the passage of civil rights laws and the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the acceptance of the right of people to marry regardless of gender and a woman’s right to control her own body — having a choice doesn’t mean you have to do something like get married or have an abortion — affirms the basic rights and freedoms we’re all entitled to. I don’t know anyone can see that as a loss.