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    Getting to No: Obama and the Republicans

    I am delighted by Obama's statement on gay marriage. I'm proud to be an American today.

    A great deal of focus is rightly on Obama himself today, on his decision-making process and on how he got here. But I'd like to take a second to think about the anti-gay-marriage movement and how it got here. This week should have been a triumph for them. Tuesday night they won their hard-line constitutional amendment in North Carolina, banning not only gay marriage (which was already illegal), but civil unions and anything that resembled a civil union. Wednesday should have been a day to celebrate their victory.

    Instead, they had a sitting President of the United States taking a public stand against them on national television, in an election year. And it was actually worse than that: a famously cautious and accommodating politician caught up in a very tough re-election fight threw the full weight of his office behind a position that polls at barely better than 50/50 and that just got solidly voted down in a swing state. And by doing that, he put hope and energy back into a movement that should have been feeling defeated and demoralized. How did the anti-gay movement get to the point where the President would do that in an election year? How did they get to the point where this President did that in an election year?

    I think this is the fruit of the right wing's general strategy of obstructing Obama. This is a President bent on compromise, facing an opposition party that refuses to take yes for an answer. The President offers a health-care-reform bill based on Republican ideas, and gets denounced as a diabolical socialist.  And the Republicans in Washington have adopted a bizarre negotiation strategy that I can only call "getting to no." In a normal, rational negotiation you respond to concessions from the other side by making a concession of your own and moving toward a middle ground that both parties can live with. The Republican strategy, if I can call it strategy, has been to respond to every concession by making more extreme demands. Ask for something, get offered half, and respond by tripling your original demand. This strategy can only work if the other party is in such a hopeless position that you don't actually need to negotiate with them anyway, or it can work for a short time simply because it's so strange that it takes the other side by surprise and you take advantage of their confusion. But sooner or later, the other party figures it out, and stops negotiating.

    North Carolina's constitutional amendment is a classic getting-to-no move. Gay marriage is illegal? Let's make it more illegal! And outlaw civil unions! And outlaw gay couples using other legal means, such as estate planning, to get any protections for their joint property! Ha ha!

    Well, yesterday they got their no. I suspect they actually wanted it, and I hope they're pleased.

    It isn't clear to me whether this decision will help or hurt Obama in the election. But it's very clear to me that he's safe from any tide of outrage against him. Everyone who'd be angry with him over this is already outraged with him. He gets outrage when he tries to make nice with them. And the outrage machine is already set to eleven. That means there's really nothing else they can do to him.

    Rush Limbaugh is saying that Barack Obama is waging war on the American way of life. You know what that makes this? Thursday. Obama gets accused of scheming against American freedoms when he does bipartisan back-bends for a week. He has shown a lot of deference to the Right on their core issues. So they attack him over peripheral issues, or make up phantom issues and fight for them as if they're making their principled last stand. What that means, in the long run, is that Obama pays no price for opposing the Right, because the price of opposing them is already built in. And it means that he's free to oppose the Right on the issues they care about most of all, because they don't have anything left in reserve to fight him with.

    If you don't make any distinction between your major policy goals and your minor ones, then in the end you won't be able to protect the major ones. And if you never compromise, no one compromises with you. It's only reason. Here's your no. There are more where that came from.



    I'm sure he's realized that, at this point, he could come out with a plan to cut capital gains and corporate taxes to zero, while increasing taxes on poor people who burden society and that Grover Norquist, Rush Limbaugh or some other right wing complainer would find a way to call it Marxist.  We've been through this before, when they tried to destroy the Clinton presidency.  But that time they used special prosecutors and witch hunts.  This time they're just out to burn the village.

    Doc, I appreciating you highlighting the tendency of the right-wing to escalate its demands with each success. Gail Collins made a similar remark about the NRA today:

    This appears to be yet another sign of the gun lobby’s desperate search for new red-meat issues now that it’s won everything it ever asked for. Someday there may be no more day-care centers, airports or bars left to open up to concealed weapons carriers. But we will always have the Supreme Court.

    It's not coincidental. In Blowing Smoke, I tracked this phenomenon from 1977, when Anita Bryant led a campaign to repeal a Miami law that protected gays and lesbians against job and housing discrimination. Victory tends to increase the right's demands. Defeat tends to lessen them.

    My theory, in a nutshell, is that the success provides affirmation. When you cling to the upside-down land of right-wing reality--where intolerant "militant homosexuals" discriminate against open-minded Christians--you require a regular dose of affirmation to assure yourself that your nutty rationalizations are true.

    Success provides that. When a majority of North Carolinians pass an amendment outlawing gay marriage, they are implicitly endorsing paranoid fears that allowing gays to marry will destroy the institution of marriage (and lead to all sorts of bizarre human-animal pairings).

    Conversely, failure tends to undermine the right's confidence in its worldview. The wingnuts may seem stubbornly enthralled by own fantasies, but most of them actually respond to outside opinion. The growing popular acceptance of gays and lesbians has gradually deflated the religious right's anti-gay agenda, to the point that they have resigned themselves to many changes that they once regarded as the end of the world. (Literally--preachers used to suggest that gay rights would lead to Armageddon.)

    Gay marriage is really the last front in the battle for gay rights. Obama's public change-of-heart may not directly produce any legislation, and it may not directly change any homophobe's opinion, but it's one more pinprick in the right-wing's fast-fizzling anti-gay fantasies. Ten years from now, North Carolina's amendment will be under siege, if it even lasts that long.

    Always a good reminder that we should read (and re-read) Blowing Smoke.

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