Opinion

The Great Debate

The gay-rights cause Obama can actually do something about

On Wednesday, President Obama declared his evolution complete. In an interview with ABC News he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Gay-rights groups rejoiced; conservative groups scolded. But what the president thinks about gay marriage is, ultimately, symbolic. There is a different issue on which Obama could achieve real, tangible results for gays and lesbians, and gain electoral advantage over Mitt Romney: employment discrimination.

Obama has already done everything he can on gay marriage. His administration has declared the federal law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be discriminatory and declined to defend it in court. He has extended spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees. Marriage laws, on the other hand, are written at the state level. Even a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, which Romney supports and Obama already opposed, is not actually signed by the president.

Meanwhile, it is still legal in 29 states to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring and firing employees, and in an additional five it is legal to discriminate against transgender people. There has been a Democratic bill floating around Congress called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend the federal protections of the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Thus far Obama has said he supports the legislation, but has not called much attention to it.

Instead he’s spoken out on gay marriage, which may come with some political costs in November. It is preposterous to assert, as many political pundits do, that black voters will be receptive to attacks on Obama over gay marriage. Polling shows blacks have become roughly equal to whites in their acceptance of gay marriage. Obama enjoys high approval ratings among black voters, and they agree with him more than with Romney on every other issue. They are also accustomed to voting for more socially liberal politicians, just as wealthy pro-choice Republicans have accepted that they must vote for anti-abortion-rights candidates.

Republicans could join Obama on same-sex marriage

In finally evolving to support marriage equality, President Obama has not only placed himself firmly on the right side of history with respect to an issue of fundamental rights and justice but he has also thrown down the gauntlet for Republicans, especially his presumed challenger, Mitt Romney.

In his comments to ABC News, the president said his attitude toward gay marriage has been shaped over time by voters and members of his own staff “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together” – who are clearly in love. In other words, the president let the human reality around him shape his personal views and will now lead accordingly – a stark contrast, say, with Mitt Romney, who seems to have little grasp of the struggles and experiences of actual voters and instead rotates his political viewpoints as often as he rotates the cars on his vehicle elevator. In President Obama’s “evolution,” America saw a leader who is not afraid to be wrong and not afraid to change his mind. It’s refreshing.

And now it’s the Republicans’ turn. As Fox News anchor Shepard Smith suggested in reporting the president’s shift, Republicans are “on the wrong side of history.” Indeed. But they have plenty of time to make amends. Republicans should be ashamed enough that theirs is the party that stood in the way of interracial marriage and civil rights. Is that really a legacy the GOP wants to continue into the 21st century? It seems to me the GOP has a choice between courting the open-minded next generation of voters, or continuing to be marred by scandals in which anti-gay Republican after anti-gay Republican is embarrassingly outed and shamed. Apparently this is a tough choice for the GOP, which would rather keep implicitly firing up bigotry than stand firm for equality.

The real reason Romney is struggling with women voters

Back in February, things started to look dire for the Romney campaign’s ability to attract female voters. Every day brought another story about Republican attacks on reproductive rights: attacks on insurance coverage for contraception, transvaginal probes, all-male panels called in Congress to discuss contraception, attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding, and the candidate himself increasingly afraid to say a positive word about contraception when asked directly in the debates. A gender gap opened up between the candidates in the polls, with Obama outpacing Romney with women by 19 points. The Romney campaign responded by trying to change the subject, to jobs and the economy. But if Romney wants to close the gender gap, he should rethink that strategy. After all, the polling data suggests that his stance on economic issues – specifically the size of the safety net and amount of economic support the government provides to citizens – is what’s really hurting him with female voters.

The real war between the sexes may not be over feminism or sex so much as whether or not our tax dollars should go to social spending. Research conducted by Pew in October 2011 showed women support a strong, activist government in much larger numbers than men. On the question of whether the government should offer more services, women said yes by 9 more percentage points than men. The gender gap on social spending remained when pollsters asked about specific interest groups. Women wanted more spending on the elderly than did men by 11 percentage points, more spending on children by 10 percentage points and more spending on the poor by 9 percentage points.

Female voters respond much more strongly than male voters to government providing pragmatic solutions and real-world support for ordinary citizens, which helps explain why women flock to Obama and to the Democrats in general. In fact, with college-educated white voters, the gender differences are nothing short of astounding. In this group, female voters prefer Obama 60 to 40, and male voters prefer Romney 57 to 39.

Pledging ourselves out of democracy

If anyone were to suggest that members of the House and Senate should abandon their own judgment and instead follow a strict dogma laid down by an outside body, we would be appalled. And if it were proposed that the president should be little more than a rubber stamp to sign any and all legislation presented to him by Congress, we would throw up our hands in horror.

Under the Constitution, members of Congress are representatives of all their constituents, and they are expected to weigh the value of legislation, discuss it, then vote according to their conscience. It is, after all, the House of Representatives, not the Supreme Soviet or the Chinese National People’s Congress. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, didn’t intend congressmen to be mere delegates or toe a line drawn by others.

Since 1978, however, when California passed Proposition 13 to reduce property taxes, this essential element of our democracy has been compromised by those who have tied the hands of lawmakers by having them sign solemn and binding “pledges.” By far the most successful is the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” promoted by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), in which congressional candidates agree in advance of election to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates” and “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” It was Ronald Reagan who in 1986 urged Grover Norquist, president of the ATR, to administer a no-tax-increases pledge, though as president he went on to raise taxes 11 times.

What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

At this pivotal moment in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year’s election:

How do they get the “we” back?

Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obama’s campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected to one another over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Obama.

When they chanted “Yes we can,” it wasn’t just a message of hope for the future – it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They weren’t waiting to be told what to do; they were actively engaged, calling friends to come to events, learn what was at stake, contribute ideas, and help out in some way. The power of “we” was awesome to behold. The “we” not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.

Larry Summers is playing economic Jeopardy

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally published at the Financial Times in response to the recent piece by Lawrence Summers for Reuters. It has been republished, verbatim, with the FT‘s permission.

Larry Summers’ considerable intellect suggests that he would be an excellent contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy. Of course, on the show, the question offered by the contestant must match the answer on the board. Summers and I disagree on the answer that matches the question “What is President Obama’s budget?” Let’s see why.

I asked two questions in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Neither question was addressed by Mr Summers, or in the simultaneous parallel critiques offered on the airwaves by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee). The first question was whether the tax increases on high-income individuals proposed by President Obama (the Buffett rule, higher taxes on dividends and capital gains, a higher top marginal rate, and so on) raised enough revenue to materially offset the country’s large budget gap or higher federal spending under President Obama. The answer, using revenue estimates from the Treasury Department and spending estimates from the President’s budget is ‘No’. The second question was what that spending growth implied for future tax rates. That is, if federal spending as a share of gross domestic product was to increase permanently as the president proposes, by how much would taxes need to rise? Answer: a lot and for everyone. This simple thought experiment presumes that we will not ratify permanently larger deficits.

Romney should be proud of Massachusetts health law

It’s been six years since Mitt Romney signed the Massachusetts healthcare reform law. That law was a framework for change, a values statement about what we believe in Massachusetts: that health is a public good and that everyone deserves access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.

Six years after its passage, our experiment in universal healthcare is working, expanding coverage while helping to control costs. Mitt Romney should be proud of the law he signed. As the one responsible for implementing it, I know I am. Here’s why.

More people have health insurance in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country: 98.1 percent of our total population. Of our children, 99.8 percent are covered. While the number of people without health insurance in America grew from 2006 to 2010, more than 400,000 people in Massachusetts gained coverage.

Romney’s second shot at healthcare reform

Americans believe in second chances. The oral arguments before the Supreme Court last week were a rare opportunity to dispassionately re-examine the divisive healthcare debate of two years ago. What happens if, after the smoke clears, we get a second chance at healthcare reform?

We’ve long known that healthcare will be a central theme in the 2012 presidential contest. The High Court’s deliberations and June decision only reinforce that reality for President Obama and Governor Romney.

Unlike with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the constitutionality of Governor Romney’s Massachusetts law has never been seriously questioned. States, not the federal government, have police powers, allowing them to require purchases (car insurance, taxes and licensure) and to pass wide-ranging public health laws and public safety laws. The Bay State law enjoys broad popular support.

Democracy for sale – or billionaires’ folly?

It was said of Andrew Carnegie that he gave money away as quietly as a waiter falling down a steel staircase carrying a tray of tall-stemmed glasses. Not so the sotto voce superrich donors who are spending so much to keep Mitt Romney from declaring himself the winner of the Republican nomination.

With their chosen candidates out front, swinging at each other as they glad-hand from state to state, the multimillionaires and billionaires a mere million is nowhere near enough to join this exclusive club – keep themselves out of sight, sitting around in a smoke-filled back room playing high-stakes hold ’em for the soul of the GOP. Not literally, of course, though many of them made their fortunes gambling everything on their hunches.

It is the common view, heard nightly around dinner tables of liberal-leaning citizens, that democracy is being bought and sold in front of our noses and that the Founding Fathers – most of whom, by the way, were comfortably well off and happily paid their way into politics – would be spinning in their mausoleums if they knew how the monarchy they defied has been replaced in the brave republic they founded by an aristocracy of the super-wealthy they never could have imagined.

Ryan’s budget frames 2012 election around Medicare

This week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released what amounts to the most substantive roadmap for fiscal policy that any Republican is likely to offer in 2012. Many political pundits and policy analysts, especially those on the left, are eager to dig into the details to alert the public about the potential (negative) impacts of a budget that slices off $5 trillion in total federal spending compared with the plan offered by President Obama in February.

Providing 100 pages of budget and policy detail in an election year is considered political suicide by many. Democrats fully intend to use the plan to campaign against Republicans in the fall, hoping to gain an advantage not only in select House or Senate races but also in the presidential contest.

Ryan, though, sees this as the only responsible path forward: So what if his plan won’t get enacted into law this year. Should Ryan’s House colleagues, or the candidates for president, avoid taking a detailed position on our country’s fiscal future? As Ryan explains: “If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing is ever going to get done.”

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