Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Election ’06: Mixed Blessings


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

An excerpt from this article appeared as the “First Word” editorial in the December 2006 Zenger’s Newsmagazine

I must confess I didn’t see the November 7 election result coming. As I noted in these pages, I was sure the Republican Party couldn’t possibly lose. Despite the obvious screw-ups — despite Iraq, Katrina and the “culture of corruption” in Congress — I didn’t think the poor, pathetic Democrats could possibly overcome the institutional advantages the Republicans had built up at least since Ronald Reagan won the presidency. After all, the Republicans had quite a lot going for them, including a quarter-century of omnipresent propaganda about how, in Reagan’s (in)famous words, “Government is not the solution to your problems; government is the problem.”

They also had a meticulous system of targeting sympathetic individual voters in hostile precincts, infrastructures in socially conservative churches expert at building massive turnout, a whole alternative media system anchored in talk radio and Fox News (by far America’s most popular cable news channel) to keep the faithful indoctrinated and give them their marching orders, and control of the actual machinery by which the votes are counted. Only three companies manufacture computer equipment and software for American elections, and the CEO’s of all of them are major Republican contributors.

Well, for once none of that was enough this November. Not even the best efforts of Karl Rove and his cadre of Republican apparatchiks either to seize on or manufacture an “October surprise” could pull out the 2006 election for them the way they did in 2002 and 2004. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and the “court” of Iraq’s puppet “government” duly convicted Saddam Hussein of genocide and sentenced him to death — and the American voters couldn’t have cared less.

What motivated enough of them to vote Democrat to give the opposition party control of both houses of Congress was, first, their frustration at being stuck in a Viet Nam-like quagmire in Iraq — the sort of war former Secretary of State Colin Powell once warned against, the kind with no clear goal or criterion to let us know we’d won (or lost) — and second, the horror at seeing the Republicans not only take dubious “campaign contributions” from corporate officials and then faithfully do the corporations’ bidding, but their utter lack of shame about it.

The Democrats played the game expertly, neutralizing the so-called “social issues” by which the Republicans had killed them in 2000 and 2004 by picking candidates who were just as socially conservative as the Republicans they opposed. Twenty years ago, the notoriously anti-choice Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, was denied a chance to speak to the Democratic convention. This year Casey’s son, equally strident in his opposition to abortion rights, was the party’s consensus candidate for U.S. Senate and his anti-choice convictions instrumental in his victory over Republican incumbent Rick Santorum — and the Democrats’ capture of the Senate by the bare minimum, 51 to 49.

The nationwide poster boy for the new breed of Christian-Right Democrat was Heath Shuler, former National Football League quarterback and congressional candidate in North Carolina. His Web site proudly described him as a conservative Southern Baptist and a “pro-life Democrat,” and other reporting on the race indicated that he would favor a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Shuler also took a Right-wing position on the immigration issue, attacking President Bush’s guest-worker program as “amnesty” and indicating he would have voted with the House Republican majority on an immigration bill that concentrated on border enforcement only without acknowledging the rights of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

Whatever the motives of voters for repudiating the Republicans, it certainly had nothing to do with liking the Democrats any better. Polls on the eve of the election revealed that 60 percent of the voters felt they knew what the Republicans stood for as a party, while only 46 percent felt the same about the Democrats. The 2006 election was a perfect example of what the late political scientist V. O. Key meant when he wrote 40 years ago, in The Responsible Electorate, that Americans do vote on issues, but “retrospectively and negatively.” The Democrats didn’t win because they were offering Americans a better alternative to the Republicans; they won simply by being, to paraphrase the old 7-Up ad slogan, the “un-Republicans.”

The Democratic triumph in 2006 is already being compared to the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994, but the comparison is unfair. The Republican insurgents in 1994 ran on a nationwide platform, Newt Gingrich’s so-called “Contract with America,” and made it as clear as they possibly could — given the biases in America’s political and media systems against any serious discussion of issues — what they stood for and what they would do if elected (not that they kept all their promises). The Democrats of 2006, by contrast, tailored their message so closely to whatever district they were running in that they really weren’t a national party at all, just a collection of interest groups across the country united by nothing but the desire to get the Republicans out and enjoy the perks of power, especially in the House, after a 12-year drought.

This was the main reason why the national Democrats didn’t do what David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, suggested they do in one of his editorials: put forth a comprehensive House ethics reform package that would make the kind of corruption the Republicans engaged in impossible. Rolland missed the point: the Democrats didn’t want to become a majority in the House to get rid of the opportunities for corporate contributions and selling public policy the Republicans had exploited so effectively. Rather, the Democrats wanted a majority so they could get the money and the corporate perks for themselves. Despite the number of voters who said they were specifically upset about “earmarks” — Congressmembers’ practice of sneaking into bills provisions specifically setting aside money for projects in their home districts — the Democratic Speaker-elect, Nancy Pelosi; the new majority leader, Steny Hoyer; and the man Pelosi endorsed for the majority leader position, John Murtha, all turned out to be A-number-1 earmarkers themselves.

The newly ascendant Democrats need to realize that America remains a profoundly conservative country. They must avoid both the temptation of pursuing an overly liberal economic and social agenda and the temptation of thinking that the voters’ new-found concern over political corruption will dissipate and let them collect the boodle as usual. The worst thing the Democrats could possibly do in office, in terms of their ability to hold on to their majority and have a shot at regaining the White House in 2008, is to play the same pay-to-play games with corporate contributors and public policy the Republicans played during their 12 years in the majority (and the Democrats played in the years before that). If they yield to that temptation, voters will decide that both parties are equally corrupt, and that government is not to be trusted to serve the people — and they’ll go back to electing the Republicans who’ve been telling them that for at least 42 years.

The corruption issue is all the more important for Congressional Democrats because the other big issue that got them their majority — the war in Iraq — is, paradoxically, the one about which they can do the least. Donald Rumsfeld may have lost his job as a result of the election, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are still very much in command, still true believers in the “mission” in Iraq and still confident of overall “victory,” whatever that means. The administration shows every sign of continuing the war in Iraq indefinitely and possibly extending it to Iran, and short of cutting off the funding for the war — which ain’t gonna happen because any Congressmember or Senator who proposed it would be accused of “not supporting our troops” — there isn’t a damned thing Congress can do to stop them.

The November 7 election and its aftermath should have one more important effect: it should destroy forever any illusions about the U.S. having a “liberal media.” Not only did a conservative paper like the San Diego Union-Tribune headline the story “Democrats Seize Control of Congress” — as if they’d staged a coup d’état rather than winning a free and fair election — but even a supposedly “liberal” paper like the Los Angeles Times has been covering the Democrats’ election of their Congressional leaders and committee chairs in a blatantly patronizing way. The battles between Steny Hoyer and Jack Murtha over the position of House majority leader (won by Hoyer though speaker-elect Pelosi endorsed Murtha) and between Jane Harman and Alcee Hastings for the chair of the House Intelligence committee are being covered like playground disputes, and Right-wing outlets like Fox News are already declaring the Democratic Congress a failure more than a month before it even takes office.

Aside from the idea that a party whose members march in zombie-like precision to the dictates of their leaders is somehow better than one in which the members have their own minds and vote for the people they want — one would think a country that proclaims itself a democracy would celebrate the Democrats’ independence of thought over the Republicans’ rote obedience — the message American voters are getting from the mainstream media is, “You made a big mistake November 7. You let a bunch of kids take over Congress. Fortunately, you’ll have a chance to fix that error in two years and put the grownups” — i.e., the Republicans — “back in charge.”

State and Local Disasters

Whatever good might have come from the 2006 elections nationwide, for the most part the returns in California, and especially in San Diego, were disastrous for the progressive cause. I may have been wrong about the national battle for Congress but I was dead right about Arnold Schwarzenegger; while others were solemnly declaring him politically dead after the debacle of his special-election initiatives in November 2005, I had no doubt he would get re-elected, partly because he’s larger than life — he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, damnit — and partly because, just as he started making comedies like Junior and Kindergarten Cop in the early 1990’s after the spectacular failure of his film The Last Action Hero, so he switched scripts as a politician, embraced an image as a moderate and undercut any possible Democratic challenger by cutting a deal with the Democrats in the legislature for his five “Rebuilding California” bond measures, all of which passed.

That astonished me — I’d thought the embers of the Proposition 13 tax revolt were still sufficiently hot to burn down any major new effort at state spending — but the combination of a bipartisan campaign and the siren song of “free money” turned the trick. The phrase “no new taxes” appeared so often in the campaign ads for Propositions 1A through 1E, it amounted to a deliberate deception. Given the addition of whopping new debt to the California state budget, on top of years of borrowing under both Schwarzenegger and his recalled predecessor, Gray Davis, just to pay the state’s operating expenses, the question is not whether state taxes will have to go up, but when, by how much, and whether the additional burden will fall primarily on corporations and the rich or (more likely in today’s political climate) on the working and middle classes through sales taxes, state fees and other regressive levies.

Only two other statewide ballot measures passed. Proposition 83, a draconian new batch of laws aimed at individuals convicted of sex crimes, sailed to victory by a 3-to-1 margin. It’s true that pedophiles aren’t exactly the most popular people in society, but the measures imposed by 83 — including sweeping restrictions on where they can live and a requirement that they wear global positioning devices and be monitored for the rest of their lives — not only offend against the basic principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that people should be punished for what they’ve actually done, not for what somebody thinks they might do in the future, but in practice has only driven them more deeply underground and forced them on rural areas ill-equipped to handle them or provide them the therapy they need to keep from re-offending. Proposition 84, a water-quality bond measure, squeezed out a victory probably in the wake of 1A through 1E.

All six other statewide initiatives lost. The good news for progressives is that took down Proposition 85, San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman’s latest attempt to swing the state against choice on abortion by imposing a parental notification requirement for minors; and Proposition 90, a deceptive initiative ostensibly curbing the abuse of eminent domain to benefit wealthy developers but really aimed at gutting all zoning restrictions and environmental regulations on land use. The bad news was that Propositions 86 and 87 — to impose new taxes on tobacco to fund health care and on the oil industry to bankroll alternative energy, respectively — both fell victim to blatantly deceptive ad campaigns paid for by the industries that would have been affected.

But the worst blow to California progressives was the sweeping 3-to-1 rejection of Proposition 89, the so-called “clean elections” campaign reform that allows grass-roots candidates to run for office and professional politicians an alternative to begging for millions of dollars from the corporate rich and other special interests. Every attempt at enacting any sort of public financing of elections in California has failed at the polls — and until the citizens of this state get wise and realize that the only workable alternative to private campaign financing and the “pay-to-play” politics that result is public financing, meaningful campaign reform is a dead issue in this state. It’s clear from the results on 86, 87 and 89 that California progressives can forget about the initiative as a means of achieving their political goals any time soon.

Locally, the election news was even worse for progressives than it was statewide. Propositions B and C, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ two initiatives to decimate the city’s work force and turn its jobs over to private companies (which usually hire the same workers but pay them about half as much and don’t offer health care, pensons or any other benefits), passed by sweeping margins. Voters in the 50th Congressional District in North County once again made it clear they prefer a corrupt Republican to an honest Democrat, and openly Gay Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla lost his bid for re-election by a landslide 60 to 40 percent margin. The silver lining in the Padilla race was that his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his defeat; even the famously homophobic paper La Prensa San Diego endorsed him.

Same-Sex Marriage: The Nail in the Coffin?

One of the ironies of the 2006 election is that it may have brought the passage of a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide closer, not pushed it farther away. Just before the election I published a long article on the Zenger’s blog, http://zengersmag.blogspot.com, called “The Game, Not the Name,” in which I argued that the Queer community needs to abandon the demand for marriage under that name and concentrate on winning domestic-partnership and civil-union rights for their relationships. Inspired by the New Jersey state supreme court decision that its Lesbian and Gay couples were entitled under its constitution to all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but not the term “marriage” itself, I argued not only that polls show a far greater level of political support for granting rights to Queer couples without calling them “marriage,” but that the term “marriage” itself carries a lot of social, historical, psychological and spiritual baggage that makes it inappropriate as a description for how Queer people actually conduct their relationships.

The results in the November 2006 election offered mixed results for this strategy. In 2004, 13 state initiatives had sought to ban same-sex marriage, and every one of them passed — regardless of whether they also contained bans on domestic partnerships or civil unions, and regardless of whether the state had gone Republican or Democratic in the Presidential election. This year, the six states that had up-or-down votes on banning same-sex marriage without also banning domestic partnerships and civil unions — Wisconsin, South Dakota, Virginia, Idaho, South Carolina and Tennessee — all passed the bans, though in some cases by smaller margins than expected.

In Colorado, voters gave Queers the double whammy on the marriage issue: they passed a marriage ban and they defeated a measure that would have allowed for recognition of domestic partnerships. On the other hand, in Arizona, the one state in 2006 where a ballot measure combined a marriage and a domestic partnership/civil union ban, it was defeated by a razor-thin 51 to 49 percent margin. This indicates not only that the home state of Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor and John McCain retains a share of cussed libertarianism in its conservatism — a sense that the term “limited government” means lassiez-faire not only in the economy but in people’s private lives as well — but that it’s possible to defeat a marriage ban if its proponents get too ambitious and try to deny any form of legal recognition for Gay and Lesbian couples.

All those new Congressional Democrats from conservative districts are going to be very concerned about “making their bones” on the social issues — persuading the voters back home that they’re not going to abandon their anti-choice, anti-Queer convictions as back-benchers in a party whose national leadership is still pretty liberal and whose newly elected speaker comes from “Queer Marriage Central,” San Francisco. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the House Democratic leadership to schedule a vote on a hot-button social issue, and a good chance that Republicans and conservative Democrats will come together to give the radical Right something of a national victory.

The issue is unlikely to have anything to do with abortion for one simple reason: there are a not more straight women in the U.S. than there are Queers, and a blatantly anti-choice bill from the Democrats is going to piss off a lot more core voters in the Democratic coalition than a ban on same-sex marriage. I think a vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment is likely to come in the current Congress, and rather than continuing to fight it, the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Queer community should negotiate the language so the amendment only restricts marriage to one man and one woman, while continuing to allow states to recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions.

This sort of “grand compromise” is hardly ideal. It essentially means acknowledging that in the United States emotional commitments between people of the same gender are perpetually going to be considered less significant than those between opposite-gender couples. It also means that the struggle for relationship equality is going to be a long, hard, multi-decade slog on a state-by-state level, and that the best we can accomplish on the federal level — an amendment to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (passed by bipartisan majorities and signed into law by a Democratic president) providing that for purposes of federal benefits, domestic partnerships and civil unions in the states that have them would be considered functionally equivalent to marriages — will probably be at least 50 years away.

But I remain convinced that if the Queer community puts all its eggs in the basket called “marriage” — if it continues the insane political strategy of pursuing a goal that only one-quarter of the American people support — the result will be a sweeping Federal Marriage Amendment that will ban all legal or contractual recognition of Gay and Lesbian partnerships anywhere in the U.S. As the comic novelist Leonard Wibberley put it in The Mouse on the Moon, you can’t always snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes you can achieve something even more difficult; you can snatch compromise from the jaws of disaster. That, I’m convinced, is the best we can hope for on the “marriage” issue.

Who Really Outed Ted Haggard?

One of the quirkier aspects of this year’s election was the weird morality play that got acted out in the last month or so of the campaign. First, Republican Congressmember Mark Foley of Florida, whose party leadership had put him in charge of a subcommittee on protecting children from sexual exploitation via the Internet — and who had pushed various versions of a bill to do that so draconian the U.S. Supreme Court twice declared it unconstitutional — was caught sending sleazy e-mails and instant text messages to teenage Congressional pages. (“Do I make you a little bit horny?” wrote the 52-year-old Congressmember to a 17-year-old page.)

Then Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who had built a church in Denver from 12 families meeting in his basement to a mega-church drawing 14,000 members and filling a giant auditorium every Sunday, found himself “outed” as a crystal-using Queer by a 49-year-old man he’d paid to have sex with him and supply him with the drug. At first Haggard offered some of the usual dog-ate-my-homework excuses — he’d only hired the man for a massage, and he’d bought the drugs from him but never actually used them — but eventually he gave a blurry but unmistakable statement of no-contest to the charges and accepted losing his job at the National Association of Evangelicals and as pastor of the church he had built.

Queers across the country celebrated these stories as classic examples of the hypocrisy of the radical Right, blasting away at homosexuality in public while enjoying the forbidden joys in private. In both cases, the truth is a little more complicated. First of all, while Foley’s sexual approaches to House pages were disgusting and flagrant examples of sexual harassment, they weren’t illegal. The age of sexual consent in the District of Columbia is 16, and all the young men Foley approached with his sorry little missives were 16 or 17. What’s more, in 1973 a newly elected Democratic Congressmember from Massachusetts named Gerry Studds had actually had sex with a 17-year-old page — not just talked about it the way Foley had — and he’d kept the secret for 10 years before the former page who’d been his lover outed him.

What was different was that the Democratic majority in power in the House in 1983 held Studds — and a Republican who was caught at the same time having had sex with a female teenage page— to account. The House passed a resolution of censure and Studds apologized for his actions, acknowledged his Gay orientation and moved on, serving in Congress until he retired in 1997. Indeed, in one of those macabre coincidences a movie producer wouldn’t let a writer put into a script for fear the audience would find it unbelievable, Studds died this year just as the Foley scandal was at its peak, after having been off the radar screen of the American media for years.

Foley’s antics reminded me more than anyone else of another hot-pantsed Republican, former Oregon Senator Robert Packwood, who was a reliable vote for women’s rights on the Senate floor but in private never seemed to meet a woman he didn’t want to grope. On this particular “moral” issue, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Democrats tend to take sexual harassment seriously whether it’s Queer or straight — while the Republicans, with a few courageous exceptions, have invested so much political capital into demonizing Queers as a class that a Mark Foley seems more heinous to them than a Robert Packwood simply because his victims were the same gender as he was. Besides, at least one page who interacted with Foley actually did have sex with him a few years later — and went to the media with fond memories of the experience as an important milestone in his own coming-out as a Gay man.

As for Ted Haggard, his story is even more complex than Foley’s. Despite the statement of the man who outed him that he was motivated by Haggard’s support of the ban on same-sex marriage on the 2006 Colorado ballot, Haggard was actually a relative moderate within the world of evangelical Christianity. He was a key figure in a campaign within the evangelical movement to get the Christian Right to take global warming seriously, and along with his vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik (who, ironically, had the task of announcing to the media that Haggard had been relieved of its presidency), had joined a group of evangelicals publicly challenging the government to do more to stop global warming.

What’s more, while Haggard endorsed the ban on same-sex marriage, he refused to take a position against the Colorado initiative to recognize Gay and Lesbian couples as domestic partners — thereby staking out the most pro-Queer, or at least Queer-neutral, position one could expect from an evangelical Christian leader. He made some powerful enemies, including such big guns on the radical Christian Right as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson — and he also threatened the coalition between pro-business lassiez-faire Republicans and the radical Right that had made the Republican Party the dominant force in American politics for a generation.

An evangelical movement that started questioning its own marriage with the pro-business Right — that started harking back to the traditions of William Jennings Bryan and wondering whether “bash the environment” and “bash the poor” are truly Christian moral values — would be a threat to business interests in general and the energy industry in particular. With a Republican Party so in thrall to the energy industry that the president, vice-president and secretary of state are all former executives of it, it’s certainly conceivable that some energy-industry lobbyists spread money far and wide to come up with some dirt on Ted Haggard … and did.