For the first time in about 3 years, I sat down at my laptop this morning and did not have anything law school-related to work on. No internship applications, no cases to read, no papers to write. I thought it would be a great opportunity to blog a little. What better to write about than last night’s votes in North Carolina and Indiana. The two leading headlines – NC voters approving a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and long-time Senator Dick Lugar losing his primary to no name state official.
The first issue requires less attention than even I will pay. I mean, if I was looking for “a pickle” in the proposed North Carolina amendment, I would say that it shows the tension between individual states and the country. This country was designed to allow states to be “laboratories of public policy” as one Supreme Court justice put it. If that’s the case, we have to accept it when a state, here or there, goes off on a public policy goose chase. We certainly don’t have to praise NC for proposing and passing this but we don’t have to view it as the downfall of Western liberal thought either. Many on Twitter or Facebook are saying hurtful and inappropriate things about North Carolinians, others are more appropriately describing themselves as “disappointed,” and still others have decided to just ignore the uncomfortable issue altogether. The bottom line for The Political Pickle is – is this the best way to be doing this?
We will agree that there are major disagreements between the two major parties about gay marriage. No question. I would say moderates and independents lean to the Democrats on this issue. So, on the gay marriage issue, there are two main camps roughly represented by the two main parties. Supporters of gay marriage believe its a civil rights issue and that doesn’t leave room for debate. Similarly, opponents of gay marriage believe it is a moral issue and that doesn’t leave much room for compromise. So, what do we do? While we wait for a national majority of people to push the cultural tied one way or the other, we let states have their day. In Connecticut, where I write this blog, gay marriage is legal. North Carolina has gone the other way. And, based on how we make law and policy in this country, we just have to deal with it. It’s kinda like a parent who knows that their child is going to get hurt but allows them to make a mistake or endure bad news. “It’s for your own good.” We have a little federalist tough love going on. We love this country enough that we watch as states make bad decisions.
As a lawyer, though, I cannot help thinking of both sides of the argument. Yes, on one hand, we stand by and allow states their sovereignty, even celebrate the “laboratory theory” of public policy. On the other hand, states cannot go too far (see the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s). So, however you feel about the legal status of same-sex couples and their right to be married, remember that states can only go so far. I don’t think North Carolina is going about this the right way, but I also think we have to swallow it until such time as minds can be changed or democratic majorities can be organized.
For a party that believes in small government and individual rights, this is a funny issue to make a national story. What’s more personal than marriage? But, I digress, my intention wasn’t to try to air out all the conceivable attacks and defenses of North Carolina’s amendment. My intention was that even if we think it’s wrong and/or the wrong way to go about governing, the silver lining is that states are wrong all the time. That’s what makes them states and that’s eventually what sparks national majorities to make progress. Unfortunately for some of the citizens of North Carolina, this is how we make progress. One step back, two steps forward.
In related news, I thought that Senator Lugar’s concession speech and the corresponding coverage of it this morning speaks exactly to this point. Senator Lugar a known moderate, bi-partisan and practical politician was upset in his state’s primary last night by the State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Sidenote: An impressive jump to be sure – state treasurer to United States Senator. Nevertheless, Mourdock’s campaign promised “stand-your-ground confrontation” on Republican orthodoxy. And won. I guess we’ll have to start calling that “stand your ground” legislating.
While that sounds great on the campaign trail, Lugar makes an even more important point about reality. “This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve,” said Lugar.
I had so much to say on this race and this whole idea of “compromise” being a dirty word. But Senator Lugar already said. Last night. And better than I could have.
Here’s more from CNN’s coverage:
“Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.”
And he didn’t stop there.
His stinging words about today’s divisive politics were reminiscent of moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s open disgust for what the process has become when she announced she was retiring.
“I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc,” said Lugar.”
I’ll say this. Lugar is not without fault. He’s been in the Senate for 36 years. 36 years! That is a long time to have 1 job and sometimes I think that does put you out-of-touch with voters. So, I’m not writing a defense of incumbents or a pity party for Dick Lugar. At the same time, he lost for being reasonable and trying to get things done in Washington. And that rubs me the wrong way. Because, again, as the Senator himself said, ideology cannot be a politician’s only quality.
“Ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents,” he said.
Senator Lugar is out and only time will tell if the next Senator from Indiana will be successful in our most prestigious legislative body. Indiana had two, reasonable and widely-liked Senators not to mention that both were willing to reach across the isle in order to see legislation through to law. Senators Bayh and Lugar have both been ousted in the last 2 Senatorial election cycles by more conservative right-wing candidates. Indiana is embracing political orthodoxy rather than practicality. Though I’ve always encouraged practicality over ideology, this is the political culture we live in and I’m not sure there’s any changing it at this point. Extremist win and moderates are beatable.
Which is fine, we just cannot expect anything to change. Don’t expect Washington to fix anything when each side has decided to “stand-its-ground” and anything in between is considered weak and politically dangerous. The good news is that if anything does get through Congress and is signed by the President, it can be challenged as unconstitutional and spend several years reaching the Supreme Court. In this way, we have an extra layer of protection to make sure nothing gets done. And I’m not really even talking about healthcare, although I do think something needed to be done there. And I’m not talking about social issues either which I would prefer that the US Senate isn’t spending valuable time debating to begin with.
I’m worried about financial issues, industrial issues, technological issues and environmental issues. Those things that supersede the “states as laboratories” model. National issues that require national attention. Debt. Deficits. Trade. Security. We’re going no where fast and we’re ousting the few people who dedicated their lives to trying to assist progress.
Senator Lugar made a career of putting people and progress over politics. I don’t feel bad for him, he had his 36 years but I do worry about the message we’re sending to our politicians and our perspective politicians. As CNN wrote, “Not always politically expedient or strategically smart, but, from his perspective, principled.” Don’t we want more Lugars and less Mourdocks? I guess not. At least in Indiana…and North Carolina.