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In Defense of Political Calculation

Stephen Markley

5:57 PM CDT, March 27, 2013

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I’ve been mulling over a recent column by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan in which he excoriates politicians and pundits over their cowardice. He uses the examples of Democratic and liberal support in the lead-up to the Iraq war (Here on its tenth birthday! Happy birthday, colossal strategic blunder and waste of human life and treasure!) and the decades-long refusal of left-leaning politicians to support gay marriage.

The calculation of politicians makes for an easy target, and in the case of the Iraq war, I could not agree more. I can easily think back to 2002 and 2003 and recall thinking that the entire country had lost its goddamn mind. When a slew of Democrats voted for the war, backed by the majority of mainstream pundits within the Beltway ecosystem, they participated in an act of total, abject cynicism and cowardice that led to a disastrous calamity. This includes vaunted luminaries of the Democratic Party, current and former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, who rightly deserved every disappointing electoral result they would suffer (this is not to say I think George W. Bush deserved re-election, just to be clear).

However, the second half of Nolan's argument, about liberal politicians who refused to support marriage equality for gays and lesbians gave me pause. Obviously, Bill Clinton made a mistake signing the Defense of Marriage Act, but let's take the last decade or so of Democratic resistance as our sample case.

While I’ve supported gay marriage for as long as I’ve been cognizant of it as an issue, I’m also a firm believer that politics, you know, exists. It is a game, and it’s a game that must be played. When it comes to equal rights for gays and lesbians, it’s hard to argue that the Democratic Party did not play the game almost to perfection over the course of the last eight years.

In 2004, the Bush administration waged the most overtly homophobic presidential campaign in American history, and its machinations led to a host of amendments to state constitutions outlawing gay marriage.

When Barack Obama had the chance to win back the White House, he did not back marriage equality. It’s impossible to say whether or not he could have won Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and other swing states in 2008 had he come out in full support of gay marriage, but if he hadn’t won he never would have been around to orchestrate and oversee the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the precipice of ending the Defense of Marriage Act, the institutionalization of same sex partner benefits in the federal government, and a host of other highly substantive reforms. We would have gotten John McCain maintaining the status quo to ensure he didn’t get a challenge from his right flank rather than the first president to declare his belief in full equality for same sex couples.

In other words, this lightning fast advancement of civil rights occurred almost entirely because of political calculation—at least on the institutional level. Yes, society is also changing and people are becoming more accepting of homosexuality, but given a different administration (namely, a Republican one) the changes we’re seeing now would still be a ripple, not a tidal wave.

Being a self-righteous purist has its attractions, which is why there is no shortage of them, but winning elections and using that political power to actually make changes that matter to people’s lives is better, harder, and more essential—if thankless—work.