Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Congratulations, Andrew!

Thanks to two "squeaker" Senate races, it looks as though Democrats will have a slim majority in both houses of Congress. In Montana, Democratic challenger Jon Tester edged out Republican incumbent Conrad Burns by roughly three thousand votes, while in Virginia, Republican incumbent George Allen lost to his Democratic challenger, James Webb, by fewer than eight thousand votes.

In other words, the Democratic takeover of the US Senate hinged on some six thousand voters in rural Montana and semi-rural Virginia. Had they cast their ballots differently, Republicans would continue to exercise control over at least one house of Congress.

Every blog, every columnist, every disgruntled Goldwater conservative who encouraged voters to give the GOP a good, old-fashioned spanking, has had an undeniable effect on this election. But the conservative commentator who has most relentlessly and persuasively made the case for a Democratic takeover, has been maverick blogger Andrew Sullivan. For the past three years, Sullivan has pounded the Republican leadership with accusations of fiscal profligacy, wartime incompetence, and general disregard for basic constitutional rights. If he managed to convince six thousand disgruntled Republicans -- like me, for instance -- to hold our noses and vote Democratic this year, then he has provided Democrats with the margins of victory by which they will retake the entire legislative branch of our government.

Whether Sullivan will want the credit for swaying this election remains to be seen. The prospect of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House is not entirely appetizing, though obviously she can bang a gavel and enforce Robert's Rules as well as any male can. More important, I'm still not certain that Democrats can behave responsibly in matters of national defense and security. They seem too much under the spell of internationalism to defy strong anti-American currents in world opinion.

But these are matters for another day. For now, it's enough to note that Republicans went down to ignominious and nationwide defeat. Bush is now the lamest of lame ducks, lacking even the political clout to get a Cabinet nominee confirmed. And the army of angry, old-school conservative pundits -- of whom Sullivan may be the most prominent -- is largely responsible for this development.

So take a bow, Andrew. You've earned it.

Massive Resistance: What Virginia's new Marriage Amendment actually means

Yesterday, the voters of Virginia faced an important test of character, and once again we failed it. As a result, the Virginia Constitution now sports an appalling new amendment, which prevents the Commonwealth from recognizing any "legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage." This "marriage amendment" was born of a fear -- unfounded and illogical -- that activist judges would either impose same-sex marriage on Virginia, or require Virginia to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Ironically, now that this amendment has finally passed, Virginians are more at the mercy of activist judges than ever.

Proponents of the marriage amendment claim that it will not affect hospital visitation rights, end-of-life decisions, wills, domestic violence protections or private contracts. All of these rights, they correctly claim, are guaranteed under the Code of Virginia. Perhaps their argument, prominently displayed at every polling place in the state, persuaded many Virginians that the amendment possessed no potentially unsavory side effects. But amendment proponents made one crucial error: They placed the Code of Virginia on equal footing with the Constitution, when in fact the Constitution supersedes the Code. Although the Constitution can guarantee liberties threatened by unconstitutional statutes, the Code of Virginia cannot preserve rights or liberties threatened by the Virginia Constitution. When mere statutes are found in conflict with constitutional law, the statutes are null and void, not the constitution.

Because constitutional amendments are so powerful, they must be clearly and directly worded to prevent a host of unintended consequences. Alas, no one seems to know what Virginia's marriage amendment might mean with the phrase "the design, qualities, significance or effects of marriage." The Constitution offers no guidance whatsoever on this matter. It has been left entirely to Virginia's judges not only to determine the nature of marriage itself, but also to sift which rights and liberties fall under the marital rubric and which belong properly to the individual.

A worst-case scenario is all too easy to envision: Theoretically, the bench could do away with dozens of democratically passed legislative statutes -- involving everything from protections against domestic violence to distribution of pension and insurance benefits -- simply by invoking "the design, qualities, significance or effects of marriage." Nor would such an interpretation be necessarily invalid. Mundane matters like inheritance rights, medical decision-making and joint ownership of property qualify as "qualities" and "effects" of marriage, and they certainly comprise a vital part of the institution's "significance" for its participants. Therefore, any benefit currently offered to married couples under the Code of Virginia could be declared, under the Virginia Constitution, off-limits not only to homosexuals but to all unmarried heterosexuals as well.

The new "marriage amendment" doesn't ensure that this scenario will happen, of course. It's far too vague for that. But with its passage, Virginians are only one activist judge away from losing many of the rights and freedoms we currently enjoy. How many we will lose is strictly a matter of conjecture. Perhaps we could rectify the situation, or at least stabilize it, by passing a second "marriage amendment" that defines the benefits, responsibilities and form of civil marriage in excruciating detail. Such an amendment might be so large and convoluted as to resemble a second constitution, and would no doubt introduce new problems, as well as new opportunities for judicial activism. The alternative is to let our judges follow their every whim as they define -- and possibly redefine -- the institution of marriage in the Commonwealth.

Virginia is no stranger to extreme, counterproductive measures of this sort. Fifty years ago, the state's General Assembly responded to a perceived threat of court-imposed desegregation by closing public schools throughout the state, and denying state funding to any school that so much as considered racial integration. The policy of "massive resistance" denied basic educational opportunities to thousands of African-Americans for nearly three years, and threw Virginia's entire public school system into chaos. Even today "massive resistance" remains a conspicuous stain on our state's far-from-spotless history. Unfortunately, by passing the marriage amendment, Virginians have approved yet another version of "massive resistance," this time enshrining it in the state constitution. It will prove embarrassing and ill-advised in the present day, and inspire shame and consternation for generations to come.

Way to go, Virginia.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Unintended Consequences and Hypocrisy: Bob McDonnell, Bill Bolling and Ted Haggard

When it comes to Virginia's Ballot Question No. 1 (the so-called "marriage amendment"), the shameful exit of leading evangelical minister Ted Haggard, or the scandal surrounding closeted Congressman Mark Foley, I've managed to bite my tongue until it bled. Republicans are clearly not leading on the family-values front, and I'm not sure it benefits anyone to rub their noses in it. That said, the GOP doesn't mind attacking Gay men and Lesbians whenever some misguided Queer Pride poster child or obscure left-wing coalition says something it doesn't like: If you listened to the Republican National Committee (and really, who does?), you might be tempted to believe that Gays and Lesbians all across the country are somehow all wired to one insidious, collective brain -- like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only kinkier.

James Kirchick found the most interesting angle on the Mark Foley brouhaha, when he noted that congressional pages tend to be the children of close friends and rich campaign contributors. Such, alas, is the nature of the spoils system. But with nominations for pagedom rare as hen's teeth, and with senators like Ted Kennedy packing the program with his own relatives, even a supersmart overachiever like Kirchick didn't stand a chance. Kirchick didn't raise the obvious question, but I will: If congressional pages tend to be the spawn of wealth and privilege, and the Republicans in Congress don't care about them, what chance does your kid have?

Which brings us to Ballot Question No. 1, the attempt by certain members (though not all) of the Virginia GOP to pass an amendment affecting the legal status of same-sex couples and all unmarried individuals within the Commonwealth of Virginia. No one is certain just how this amendment will affect them, because the amendment is broadly written: It states that the Commonwealth may not recognize "a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage." Since no one has codified the design, qualities, significance or (most ominously) the effects of marriage, the interpretation and enforcement of the amendment would be left to state judges, who would have carte blanche to invalidate wills, living wills, joint ownership agreements, adoptions, or anything else that happens to cross their respective benches. If this sounds like a gay sporting ground for judicial activism of the worst sort, that's because it is.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, whose zealous pursuit of suspected sodomites (and subsequent evasiveness on his own sex life) earned him the nickname "Taliban Bob," has stated that the amendment will have no effect on "the ordinary civil and legal rights of unmarried Virginians." And Virginia's Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling has stated that "there will be no unintended consequences from the passage of this amendment."

Ponder those words carefully: They are not the words one would expect from self-proclaimed conservatives. Conservatives are always concerned about potential unintended consequences of sweeping legislation; it's what makes us ... well, conservative. McDonnell claims that the amendment will have no consequences whatsoever, or at least none that will matter until they happen to you. Bolling's claim, however, is more interesting: The amendment may have consequences, but they will be purely and completely intentional -- that is to say, whatever happens will happen because the people who wrote the amendment wanted it thus. And since the amendment's broad language gives us no way to surmise what those perfectly intentional consequences will be until they have already happened, we must look at similar initiatives to guess at what the writers of this amendment actually want.

In Ohio, a broadly worded marriage amendment stripped unmarried couples of basic domestic-violence protections. If this were to happen in Virginia, it would be (according to Bolling) an intended consequence, something that Virginia's social conservatives actually want to happen. If it were to discourage high-tech businesses from establishing themselves in the Commonwealth, thus inhibiting economic development, it would be intentional. If it discouraged unmarried tourists from vacationing in the Commonwealth, thus depriving Virginia of millions of dollars of revenue, that would be precisely what Bill Bolling and his ilk meant. And if the amendment creates a flurry of litigation, as judges, attorneys and clients struggle to figure out what its language really means, that might be the most intentional result of all.

To be fair, unmarried heterosexuals can solve most of these problems by getting hitched, which means that the amendment, if passed, will promote the institution of marriage -- albeit in a weirdly draconian manner. The amendment will promote the institution of divorce as well, by pushing heterosexuals into marriages they're neither ready nor able to handle. For Gay and Lesbian Virginians, the amendment will serve as a powerful incentive to move far, far away. And if our lieutenant governor is to be believed, that will also be intentional: Bolling and his ilk want shotgun weddings, messy divorces, stunted economic growth, and lots of new "For Sale" signs in the neighborhood. The logical extension of Bolling's statement is that anything that happens as a result of the so-called marriage amendment will happen because the people who wrote and promoted the amendment willed it so.

In Colorado, former pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church has learned a thing or two about "unintended consequences": More than one blogger has found an uncanny coincidence between Haggard's prayer for God to expose "lies and deception" and the revelation later that week that Haggard had been receiving drug-fueled "massages" from a male prostitute in Denver. For this, and for his work on behalf of an anti-marriage amendment in Colorado (which he may have co-written), some have accused Haggard of hypocrisy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Ted Haggards of the world -- not to mention the Bill Bollings and the Bob McDonnells -- don't really object to one-night stands with same-sex partners, at least not enough to grant them the benefits of legal marriage (which if nothing else would increase the potential cost of promiscuity). Their entire political platform depends on having hyperpromiscuous Gays and Lesbians to demonize. If some fundamentalists also happen to be homosexual, closeted and promiscuous, they may be "liars and deceivers" as Haggard puts it, but they are not hypocrites. Lest we forget, hypocrisy occurs when one's behavior contradicts one's stated beliefs. Haggard's "sexual immorality," in contrast, has been perfectly in keeping with his own statements about homosexuality. He is leading the life that he would compel others to lead.

What fundamentalists really object to, is the presence and visibility of same-sex couples in committed, monogamous relationships. These couples represent an empirical threat to their doctrinal worldview. And so their retaliation against Gay and Lesbian families, especially those with children, has been severe. The real question -- not only in Virginia, but also in Wisconsin and Colorado -- is just how far the fundamentalists are willing to go. In Virginia, at least, there seem to be no limits.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Just Because I'm Holding My Nose Doesn't Mean It Won't Stink

The writing is finally on the wall: It's time for what George W. Bush would call "an accountability moment."

Full disclosure: I voted for Bush in 2004, and I do not regret my choice. The alternative, lest we forget, was John "Ketchup King" Kerry, who recently distinguished himself with a supergaffe about America's armed forces. Kerry's attitudes don't seem to have changed much since his medal-tossing Winter Soldier salad days, and I doubt that Kerry would have handled the problems with Iraq, Iran or North Korea any better than Bush has. Given his cavalier attitude toward national security issues, he might have been a good deal worse. As for Hurricane Katrina, Kerry's election would not have affected the corrupt and mismanaged city government of New Orleans, or the incompetent state leadership in Louisiana, so the outcome of that sorry tragedy would have been much the same as well (though the residents of New Orleans and the liberal media might have been less inclined to blame Kerry for it).

So why am I voting Democratic in this year's election?

Partly it's because Bush has fallen victim to his own success in the War on Terror. The United States is generally safer, and unquestionably less vulnerable to attack, than it was during the lazy, halcyon summer of 2001, mainly because its citizens are more alert to the possibility of terrorism. It's possible that the billions we've spent on homeland security may have done some good. But for the most part, the best thing the Bush administration could have done is promote vigilance among the citizenry -- and this it has done remarkably well.

That said, the Bush administration's conduct in the War on Terror has raised grave legal, ethical, even constitutional questions. Over the past four years we have witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the power of the Executive Branch, to the point that (it claims) it can curtail any individual's right to a fair, impartial and speedy jury trial, suspend habeas corpus practically at will, listen to citizens' most private conversations without a warrant, and subject suspected enemies of the state to physical and psychological torture.

To put it in a nutshell, I am voting a Democratic ticket this year because government has replaced terrorism as the greatest threat to the American people.

The arguments against voting Democratic are legion, and a few of them are even valid. The most compelling one, at least to me, is that if Democrats were to regain control of Congress, they would promptly raise taxes. No doubt Democrats will wish to do so, and may even pass a few bills to that effect. But they cannot pass a tax increase without the president's signature. If George W. Bush truly opposes higher taxes, he can veto them.

The second objection is much like the first: Democrats, it is said, will create large-scale social programs and vastly increase the national debt. I'm not certain how that would differentiate them from today's Congressional Republicans, who have enjoyed six years of unchecked, irresponsible profligacy. But it is nonetheless true that many Congressional Democrats never met a social program they didn't like. Again, the difference between a spendthrift Democratic Congress and a spendthrift Republican one, is that a Republican president is more likely to veto the capricious whim of a Democrat.

Naturally, my vote for a Democratic Congress depends on keeping a Republican in the Oval Office. In the short term, it's a safe bet, since the presidency is guaranteed to remain under GOP control through 2008. But if at that time America elects a Democratic president -- a Hillary or an Obama, perhaps -- then Democrats will be able to do anything they please, much as Republicans have done over the past six years. The greatest caveat to voting a Democratic ticket tomorrow, is that by doing so we may experience even more heartbreak, and more flagrant abuse of power, if we vote Democratic in the future. But the greatest caveat to voting Republican tomorrow is that we will experience the heartbreak and abuse of power now.

Can we afford to have the GOP control executive and legislative branches until the next Presidential election? It doesn't look that way, given the Congressional spending record. Since 2004, they have taken a few small, tentative steps toward budgetary responsibility, but they haven't made so much as a dent in an out-of-control national debt. Democrats won't fare any better, of course, but with Bush exercising veto power against them, they can't do worse.

If George W. Bush ever had any ideas about reducing the size and scope of government, they vanished long before September 11. Still, a paralyzed government can be almost as good as limited government. A vote for Democrats tomorrow will ensure legislative gridlock until the next "accountability moment" comes along.

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