The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Bruni

MoDo is off today.  In “The Obama Era, Brought to You by the Iraq War” The Pasty Little Putz tells us that the current Democratic majority was forged in the backlash against George W. Bush’s Middle East policies.  Poor little Putzy seems to have forgotten everything about the reign of C+ Augustus.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Israel: Bits, Bytes and Bombs:”  President Obama paid a visit. Now what will the Israelis and Palestinians do?  My prediction is that in a few weeks Tommy will be haring off to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to ask a cab driver.  Mr. Bruni, in “Marriage and the Supremes,” says the context for the high court’s hearings on gay marriage is a profound social and political revolution.  Here’s the Putz:

When prominent people in Washington spend an anniversary apologizing for being catastrophically, unforgivably wrong about a decade-old decision, you might expect that the decision in question had delivered their party to disaster or defeat. But last week’s many Iraq war mea culpas were rich in irony: one by one, prominent liberals lined up to apologize for supporting a war that’s responsible for liberalism’s current political and cultural ascendance.

History is too contingent to say that had there been no Iraq invasion in 2003, there would be no Democratic majority in 2012. (It’s easy enough to imagine counterfactuals that might have put Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.) But the Democratic majority that we do have is a majority that the Iraq war created: its energy and strategies, its leadership and policy goals, and even its cultural advantages were forged in the backlash against George W. Bush’s Middle East policies.

All those now-apologetic liberals who supported the war in 2003 are a big part of this story, because without their hawkishness there would have been no antiwar rebellion on the left — no Michael Moore and Howard Dean, no Daily Kos and all its “netroots” imitators.

This rebellion divided the Democrats, but it also energized them. During the long Reagan era, American liberalism was an ossified establishment pitted against a successful right-wing insurgency. But the anti-Iraq war insurgency created something new in modern politics — a kind of “movement liberalism” that thought of itself in the same scrappy, ideologically driven terms as the conservative movement, and that was determined to imitate conservatism’s tactics, institutions and success.

Had the Iraq invasion turned out differently, this movement and the Democratic establishment might have spent a decade locked in conflict. But when the W.M.D. didn’t turn up and the occupation turned into a fiasco, the two wings of the party made peace: the establishment embraced the grass roots’ anti-Bush fervor, and the insurgents helped transform liberalism’s infrastructure and organizing and communication.

This synthesis was then solidified by the Obama campaign. Obama the candidate convinced both the insurgents (who originally preferred John Edwards) and the Hillary-favoring establishment that he was one of them, and his team leveraged grass-roots enthusiasm and online savvy to build the juggernaut that won in 2008 and 2012.

But Obama didn’t just benefit from the zeal that entered the Democratic Party through the antiwar movement; he also benefited from the domestic policy vacuum left by Bush’s Iraq-ruined second term. The Bush White House’s “compassionate conservatism” was the last major Republican attempt to claim the political center — to balance traditional conservative goals on taxes and entitlement reform with more bipartisan appeals on education, health care, immigration and poverty. And as long as the Republican Party was successfully hovering near the middle, the Democrats had to hover there as well.

But once Bush’s foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled, and the White House’s planned second-term agenda — Social Security reform, tax and health care reform, immigration overhaul — never happened.

This collapse, and the Republican Party’s failure to recover from it, enabled the Democrats to not only seize the center but push it leftward, and advance far bolder proposals than either Al Gore or John Kerry had dared to offer. The Iraq war didn’t just make Obama possible — it made Obamacare possible as well.

Nor is it a coincidence that these liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars. True, there’s no necessary connection between the Bush administration’s Iraq floundering and, say, the right’s setbacks in the gay-marriage debate. But cultural change is a complicated thing, built on narratives and symbols and intuitive leaps.

As The American Conservative’s Dan McCarthy noted in a shrewd essay, the Vietnam War helped entrench a narrative in which liberal social movements were associated with defeat in Indochina — and this association didn’t have to be perfectly fair to be politically and culturally potent.

In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren’t culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration’s blunders — the missing W.M.D., the botched occupation — have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.

Of all the Iraq war’s consequences for our politics, it’s this narrative that may be the war’s most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

Reading the news from the wider Middle East and then watching President Obama visiting Israel triggered this thought: The president looked as if he were visiting an atoll in the Pacific, or maybe New Zealand — but definitely some kind of island state surrounded by roiling seas.

Ari Shavit of the daily Haaretz captured this mood in his column the other day, which began: “A few months ago Amnon Dankner published a sharp, amusing article in the new newspaper Sof Hashavua. He described how Shimon Peres’s innovative technological project causes Israel to detach from the Middle East and sail westward through the Mediterranean Sea, like a sort of floating island. Laughter aside, Dankner nailed the spirit of the time. In recent years Israel has been feeling, thinking and behaving as though it is no longer located in West Asia and can exist as an island that has broken off from it. As if there was no Arab world, no Palestine, no Iran. No Arabs, no settlers, no occupation.”

In fact, while President Obama was in Israel there was a report that chemical weapons were used next door in Syria and rockets were fired into Israel from next door in Gaza. But, at the very same time, Globes, Israel’s business newspaper, published this item: “Accel Partners has completed the closing of Accel London IV, a $475 million fund focused on Europe and Israel. … Accel London IV will invest in the firm’s core areas of expertise, including consumer Internet, big data, cloud, SaaS and mobile. Accel partner Kevin Comolli said, ‘The fact that Accel London IV was raised in eight weeks and was significantly over-subscribed is a powerful endorsement of Accel London and the market opportunity in Europe and Israel.’ ”

Rockets arrive from Gaza in the morning and venture capital from London in the afternoon. Israel’s ability to live as if it were disconnected from the rest of the region is impressive and necessary. It’s also illusory and dangerous.

It’s impressive and necessary because Israel is the only country in the world today that has nonstate actors, armed with missiles, nested among civilians on four out of five of its borders: the Sinai, Gaza, southern Lebanon and Syria. Beyond them lies a hinterland of states consumed by internal turmoil, and Iran. Yet Israel has managed to juggle bits, bytes and bombs — with high walls that neutralize its enemies and high-tech that nourishes its economy.

But there is a fine line between keeping danger out and locking fantasy in, between keeping your people alive and keeping crazy dreams alive. Israel is close to crossing that line.

The dangerous illusion Israel is dwelling in, argues Shavit, is the notion that “it can live like an autarky with no relation to the environment.” But no nation can do that, he argued, “certainly not a nation in which six million Jews share the land with more than five million Palestinians. Certainly not a nation that insists, even in the second decade of the third millennium, on occupying another nation.”

Indeed, the crazy dream Israel is keeping alive is that it can permanently occupy the West Bank, with its 2.5 million Palestinians, to satisfy biblically inspired settlers, who now hold major cabinet positions, like the housing portfolio, in Israel’s new government. With nearly 600,000 Israelis now living in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the window for a two-state solution “is slowly vanishing from the earth,” notes the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal. Amazingly, polls still show a majority on both sides for a two-state deal, “but there is a deep trust problem” that has to be overcome — fast.

Nahum Barnea, the veteran Israeli columnist of Yediot Aharonot, told me Obama made a real “breakthrough” to the Israeli public with his speech on Thursday. “If he was considered an enemy before, he is now considered a friend,” said Barnea. “Even those who still disagree with him don’t think he has bad intentions toward Israel.”

Obama embraced Israelis with both understanding and honesty. He noted in his speech: “As Ariel Sharon said — I’m quoting him — ‘It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state [and], at the same time to control all of [the land of] Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.’ ”

Which is why Palestinians need to drop all their preconditions and enter negotiations and Israel needs to halt settlements and test and test again whether President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority can deliver. Thanks to their cooperation with the Israeli security services, no Israeli was killed in the West Bank by terrorism in 2012. But Palestinians won’t sustain that restraint without movement toward a Palestinian state. The best way for Israel to deal with the chaos around it is not to put its head in the sand but to collaborate with Palestinians to build a West Bank state that is modern, secular and Westernizing; one where Muslims, Christians and Jews can work together and that stands in daily refutation of the failing Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood models elsewhere. If Israelis and Palestinians do not try everything — now — to make that happen, this will be remembered not as a lost opportunity but the lost opportunity, and no island will escape the storm that will follow.

And now we come to Mr. Bruni:

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen advocates of gay rights — of equal rights, I should say — as revved up as they are right now, with the Supreme Court poised, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to consider same-sex marriage in two separate cases.

But while they’re watching this moment raptly and hopefully, it’s not with a sense that the fate of the cause hangs in the balance. Quite the opposite. They’re watching it with an entirely warranted confidence, verging on certainty, that no matter what the justices say during this coming week’s hearings and no matter how they rule months from now, the final chapter of this story has in fact been written. The question isn’t whether there will be a happy ending. The question is when.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about this juncture: the aura of inevitability that hovers over it. In an astonishingly brief period of time, this country has experienced a seismic shift in opinion — a profound social and political revolution — when it comes to gay and lesbian people. And it’s worth pausing, on the cusp of the court hearings, to take note of this change and to mull what’s behind it.

As for the change itself, look at the last month alone. Look merely at the Republican Party. Although its 2012 platform called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, scores of prominent Republicans, including a few senior advisers to Mitt Romney’s campaign, broke ranks in late February and put their names to a Supreme Court amicus brief in favor of marriage equality.

That these dissidents can’t be dismissed as pure anomalies was made clear at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend. CPAC, mind you, is no enclave of moderation and reason. It’s more like an aviary for the far-right “wacko birds” whom John McCain recently called out.

But as BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner, who covered the conference, noted, “Opponents of gay rights spoke to a nearly empty room, while supporters had a standing-room-only crowd.” That observation came under a headline that said, “At CPAC, the Marriage Fight Is Over.” The article went on to quote a bit of counsel that the Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin gave her fellow conservatives. On the issue of same-sex marriage, she told them, the country was headed in one and only one direction. Republicans could either get with the program or get comfy with their image of being woefully out of touch.

The BuzzFeed article was posted last Sunday. On Thursday, in Politico, came the sweeping declaration that March 2013 would perhaps go down as “the month when the political balance on this issue shifted unmistakably from risky to safe.” That assessment reflected formal endorsements of same-sex marriage, in less than a week’s span, by both Rob Portman and Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, tellingly, didn’t just articulate her position in the course of a broader interview or speech. She released a precisely scripted video dedicated to marriage equality, and that spotlight and care spoke volumes about the way this issue has suddenly become central to Democratic politics: something a serious national figure who wants party approval and donor dollars must support and must get right.

What a difference four years make. In 2008, both Clinton and Barack Obama publicly opposed same-sex marriage. Just a year ago, that was still Obama’s formal stance. But by the summer of 2012, marriage equality had made its way into the party platform. Now it’s woven into the party’s very fiber.

There’s no going back. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey released early last week, respondents nationwide favored marriage equality by a 58-to-36 margin. That’s an exact flip of a similar survey just seven years ago, when the margin was 36-to-58.

And among young Americans, who will obviously make up more and more of the electorate as time goes by, support was stronger still. The ABC/Washington Post survey showed that 81 percent of people in the 18-to-29 age group endorsed marriage equality.

The buildup to the Supreme Court hearings has demonstrated the breadth of diversity of support for it. There have been amicus briefs signed, or proclamations of solidarity issued, by dozens of professional athletes and by the American Academy of Pediatrics, by tech giants and accounting firms and retailers and airlines. Somewhere along the way, standing up for gay marriage went from nervy to trendy. It’s the Harlem Shake of political engagement.

And the unstoppable advances made by gays and lesbians were suggested by a quiet but revealing statement recently by the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who signaled that the organization would put a new emphasis on transgender equality.

These advances happened in largest part because of the increased visibility of gay people who have had the courage and optimism to share their lives and truths with family, friends, colleagues. Although many critics nitpicked Portman for changing his views only out of what was deemed a selfish concern for his own gay son, that’s precisely the way many people are illuminated and tugged along: by emotion, not abstraction; by what’s immediate and personal, not what’s foreign and theoretical. Clinton has acknowledged as much by citing the influence of gays and lesbians she has known and respected. And the decades-long rallying cry of the gay-rights movement — come out, come out, so that Americans understand the impact of discrimination on people they care about — was predicated on that wrinkle of human nature.

Additionally, the quest for same-sex marriage has forced many Americans to view gays and lesbians in a fresh light. We’re no longer so easily stereotyped and dismissed as rebels atop parade floats, demanding permission to behave outside society’s norms. We’re aspirants to tradition, communicating shared values and asserting a fundamentally conservative desire, at least among many of us, for families, stability, commitment. What’s so threatening about any of that?

And who really loses if we win? Where’s the injured party? The abortion debate grinds on in part because to those who believe that life begins at conception and warrants full protection from then on, every pro-choice victory claims victims. The gun debate grinds on because new restrictions are just that — restrictions — and no matter how justifiable and necessary they may be, opponents will rail that their freedom is being curtailed.

But the legalization of same-sex marriage takes nothing from anyone, other than the illusion, which is all it is and ever was, that healthy, nurturing relationships are reserved for people of opposite sexes.

The Supreme Court cases and their resolutions indeed matter. If the court doesn’t dismantle the Defense of Marriage Act, there’s no telling how many more years will pass before this repugnant 1996 law tumbles in some other way and before gay and lesbian couples married in states that allow such weddings are treated equally under federal law.

And the court could, in its ruling on the constitutionality of a California ban against same-sex marriage, hasten the spread of marriage equality beyond those nine states and the District of Columbia. For now the count builds slowly, through time-consuming, patience-fraying, expensive legislative and referendum battles, and a matter of basic fairness is beholden to local politics and pockets of enduring bigotry.

But fairness is where we’re heading, at least in regard to marriage, which has emerged as the terrain on which Americans are hashing out their feelings about gays and lesbians. The trajectory is undeniable. The trend line is clear. And the choice before the justices is whether to be handmaidens to history, or whether to sit it out.


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