Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Clinton Doctrine

In a time of constant press availability, hourly tweets and Facebook posts, and YouTube videos for every small occasion, it is increasingly rare that a truly important speech is made, that words are spoken that themselves have the power to transform both the present mindset and the future path. Yesterday in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave one of the most important speeches in recent history, and perhaps the most important declaration ever for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. Speaking on behalf of President Obama and the United States of America, Secretary Clinton harkened back to her landmark 1995 speech in Beijing, and declared “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” Much as the statement “all men are created equal” seems today plainly obvious, 1776 was the first time anyone bothered to write that down, similarly, yesterday was the first time in history that a world power bothered to articulate that seemingly obvious truth as fundamental policy.

In doing so, the Secretary of State eloquently and forcefully made the case yesterday for what I think it is fair to describe as the Clinton Doctrine. For a woman with an already long and distinguished legacy, an un-nuanced declaration that the most powerful nation on Earth is fully committed to the dignity, respect and equality of gays and lesbians is a fine addition. In many ways, it’s a fine addition because it is uniquely hers. Secretary Clinton has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of women and children, particularly in parts of the globe where they are all but nonexistent. However, while she undoubtedly has generated new attention for these issues and, as Secretary, put power behind words, these were always going to be paradigms of human rights that originated with someone else. Mrs. Clinton was improving a trail blazed by Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt. Yesterday, she blazed her own trail.

We have heard leaders give very positive and forward-thinking speeches in which gay rights have been mentioned before; we’ve seen the president laudably address the Human Rights Campaign twice; we’ve seen dozens of political leaders and celebrities speak for a few moments about how “it gets better.” And those are great – and historic. But Secretary Clinton’s speech was new ground. For the first time, a representative of the United States – not just of our government but of our people – spoke at length exclusively about gays and lesbians. In doing so, she addressed not merely the minimum rights under the law we deserve as equal members of the human race, but spoke about us as people, gave the world for a few moments an opportunity to think about how things feel from our perspective. She said many things that I, and I think millions of others, have been waiting to hear from a world leader for years.

It is nice to hear from a politician, usually in advance of an election or before a fundraiser, how he’ll fight for protection from hate crimes or increased spousal recognition. But the world – and much of our own country – desperately needed to hear a leader say that “The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors.”

Hillary Clinton said that yesterday.

We needed to hear a world leader (and a straight leader) say, “We need to ask ourselves, "How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?"”

Hillary Clinton said that yesterday.

We needed a leader to say, “in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.”

Hillary Clinton said that yesterday.

Believe it or not, for anyone who listens to her speech, that may be the very first time they have heard someone tell them those simple truths. Secretary Clinton made a very personal case to the world in a way that only someone known throughout the world and held in such esteem really can. And at its core, that’s all this is: personal. The barriers to equality and acceptance fall when you know someone you love is gay.

Secretary Clinton also made the case in historic terms. She placed the struggle for LGBT equality squarely on par with the struggle for women’s rights and for the rights of African Americans, where it belongs. This speech removed any uncertainty about whether the United States as a government believed that to be the case. Additionally, language is important. By referring to us as “the LGBT community” – by simply referring to us as people – rather than the vernacular of emphasizing the word “homosexual” in much of the world (or “faggot” in much of this country), she used words to underscore that sex has relatively little to do with who we are as brothers and sisters in the human race.

When an historic speech is given, coupled with an historic policy such as the one issued by the President yesterday that Secretary Clinton was announcing, it is worth reflecting. The United States, for the first time in history, is both speaking to the world at length about the rights and gays and lesbians and using the power of our extensive foreign aid to impact the rights of gays and lesbians around the globe. It makes me both terribly proud of Secretary Clinton for making this speech and articulating this doctrine and of President Obama for issuing this policy and allowing the speech. It also makes me incredibly proud to be an American and privileged to live in this era.

(Watch the full video here:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

NY Catholic Leaders Face Real Problems: Gay marriage isn't one of them

Every ten minutes, a child in New York state is born into poverty, adding to the current level of 1 out of every 5 New York children living in poverty. Of those, nearly half a million live in extreme poverty, the most gut wrenching, back-breaking, inhumane poverty one can imagine in what should be a first world country – and they’re children.

Last year alone, there were nearly 76,000 violent crimes committed in the state of New York, including 861 homicides and nearly 3,000 incidents of rape. Homicide remains the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 35.

This year, more than 113,000 individual New Yorkers will turn to homeless shelters, the highest level since data has been collected.

Despite that, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York are expending time and resources in a last ditch effort to prevent the New York State Senate from voting to grant every New Yorker the right to enter into a civil marriage with the person they love. These actions mirror the efforts made by the Church in California and Maine, among other states, that includes spending millions of dollars to defeat votes to legalize marriage equality. This places the Archdiocese and Archbishop Timothy Dolan in opposition not only to the inevitable political progress of the state, but to the substantial majority of New Yorkers who support the freedom to marry.

In a blog post today, Archbishop Dolan compared the efforts by Governor Cuomo and the New York legislature to actions by China and North Korea. His Eminence says his position is not about denying anyone rights, except the reality is, of course, that it’s entirely about denying rights and continuing to codify and condone harmful bigotry.

For a leader of a church whose fundamental principle of social teaching, a central tenet of church policy for centuries and enunciated by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, is that of a “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable” the Church seems to focus a disturbing amount of time, energy and resources not on ameliorating the plight of the poor and vulnerable right here in America, but rather on immersing itself and wasting money in culture wars which it is ultimately losing. Let’s stop wasting our time on losing battles, let’s stop focusing on thinly veiled hatred for gays and lesbians and make a truly concerted effort to lift those children out of poverty, prevent those violent crimes, and reduce homelessness.

Oh, and if you live in New York, call or email your state Senator and ask him or her to do the right thing and vote to respect the dignity and equality of all New Yorkers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dems need to seize outrage over Medicare cuts

Earlier today, during his weekly press conference, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic Whip, indicated that his caucus may be willing to compromise on cuts to Medicare in exchange for concessions on the debt ceiling. Any public support for cutting Medicare, even a little, is particularly tone deaf right now. Indeed, the Democrats – especially those in the House – need to shift public attention to Medicare by better and more succinctly expressing their outrage at the plans by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to eliminate Medicare. Above all, they need to emphasize that they will do all in their power to prevent it. This is a seize-able moment, much like health care reform two years ago was for the GOP, because of the intensity of public opposition to the GOP budget.

Why any Congressional Democrat is not fitting some variation of “the Republicans’ Medicare-destroying budget” into their daily talking points is beyond me. Instead, as usual, the Democrats appear to be showing up to this knife fight over the budget with a stack of library books. They are getting lost in nuance and, to be fair, facts. No, if the Ryan budget were passed it would not actually end Medicare. But the Affordable Care Act was never going to institute death panels, either. Yet, the town halls of the summer 2009 were reverberating with screams about death panels. Similarly, with some media savvy and message discipline, the town halls of summer 2011 can be about angry seniors showing up en masse to rail against the Republican Plan to End Medicare. To do the opposite, and be publicly open to compromising on Medicare is blatantly ignorant of both the present reality and the massive political opportunity that the Ryan budge t presents – particularly in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio: crucial in 2012 and full of Medicare eligible seniors.

Kathleen Hochul knows this. She is the Democrat running in the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district. A Democrat running in a normally Republican district, Hochul has seized on the opposition to Paul Ryan and John Boehner’s plans to destroy Medicare – and will likely win tonight as a result.

PPP released a series of polls this morning clearly demonstrating that for four Democratic Senators whose seats are necessary to maintain control next year – Brown (OH), McCaskill (MO), Tester (MT), and Klobuchar (MN), any support for cutting Medicare makes voters in their states overwhelmingly less likely to vote for them. It is in their best interests and that of their Democratic colleagues if party leaders take a hint if Hochul wins tonight – that opposition to any cuts to Medicare should be the key selling point of the Democrats right now.

It will take some astroturfing that’s never been our strongest ability, but reminding the voters that we want to save Medicare while they want to end it, while encouraging public outrage, should be the Dems’ mission for this summer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Baucus Bill Protects a Woman's Right to Choose

I'm not a fan of the Senate Finance Committee's bill that cleared committee earlier today, almost entirely because it lacks a public option. I believe that without a strong public option, the notion of health-care reform will be little more than a myth. But in a turnaround, the Baucus bill today did not restrict any government funding of abortions for women who can't afford them. And that's a good thing. Nearly 36 million women voted for President Obama last November, and I'd venture to say that most of them did so with the assumption that a pro-choice candidate would protect this particular right. I understand that not all Americans, albeit a minority, do not share my view on this particularly sensitive issue and loathe the notion of their tax dollars, no matter how few and no matter how indirectly, will be funding abortions for low income women. But we don't get to cherry-pick which programs and priorities our tax dollars fund. Millions of Americas have strong conviction that we should not fund fighter jets or tanks, but I think it's a good idea that we continue to do so. Abortion is a legal right in this country and a function of the medical system to which women are entitled. If it becomes available only to women who can afford it, we lack the equal protection our government supposedly guarantees. Even when the topic is controversial, it's always good when we continue to defend the rights of those who need it. True health insurance reform needs to ensure that procedures are covered even if a minority disapproves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize: Sending the wrong message

I congratulate a truly surprised President Obama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but I am concerned that, for him, it's an award given too soon. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama is precisely the type of person for whom the prize is intended. I would have been certain he'd win this award at some point in his career, just not this early. But while Obama may be a worthy recipient of the prize, the country he leads is not.

If the Nobel Peace Prize was, as the President said, a recognition of America’s efforts, then we most certainly do not deserve it. America deserves an award for facing an unprecedented challenge of global reach and choosing a path of apathy. We deserve an award for resisting innovation to grow our economy and protect our planet. If there were a prize for dividing as a society when we need to unite behind a common purpose, surely America is the top choice.

Peace requires progress. And as Americans and as a country, we have spit in the face of progress, we have placed roadblocks in its path like errant schoolboys vandalizing property – simply because we can. Peace requires thinking big; and America in 2009, despite the brilliant and ambitious rhetoric of President Obama, is almost entirely about thinking small. Part of the problem is that, like a spoiled child, America almost never gets told it’s doing something wrong, at least not by the people who matter. In fact, quite the contrary, we get rewarded with things like the Nobel Peace Prize.

This sends the wrong message. It says we’re doing something right, it says we don’t need to change our ways. The rejection of Chicago for the 2016 Olympics – which was a loss for America – was such a statement. It was a austere world body saying, “America, you’re no longer #1; you’re no longer better than us.” And they were right, but of course we didn’t get the message back home. We used it to further criticize our nation’s leader, instead of criticizing our outmoded ways.

America needs a wake-up call, not a prize for our indifference.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Let's start some rumors

Late last week, the Democratic National Committee aired a web ad claiming the Republican Party wants to kill Medicare. I was encouraged to see this, not because I care about the GOP’s stance on Medicare, but because the Democrats were finally airing an attack (albeit nobody was really listening because it was awkwardly timed and poorly marketed) that was, at best, borderline true.

Does the Republican Party really want to “kill” Medicare? It doesn’t really matter; all that does, is that we’re saying they want to and that sounds really bad. So let’s start spreading the rumor. Rumors are great things in politics, particularly when they’re hard to trace back to a particular source. It would be really great if the Democrats could start some rumors of their own. Yes, essentially what I’m advocating is that we start lying. It’s highly effective and in a war, you need to play by the standards that your opponent is, except better. Rumors are so much better than the facts. It’s not very effective –or fun – to argue that we want to cut costs and reduce overhead and increase preventative care. I’m already asleep. And I don’t have an enemy.

On the other hand, if someone starts a rumor saying the Republicans want to stop immunizing children then people can really start screaming on CNN. How about the Republicans want to ban anesthesia? Or limit the number of prescriptions you can fill? Or euthanize your dog?

Any would work, and I’d imagine with a little time and creativity, the crowd at Air America or the Huffington Post could come up with some real doozies. I’d love to start hearing some of them. I’d love to hear folks with a dose of crazy (because, believe me we’ve got our share of crazy) spewing off on cable news and at town hall meetings about some left-wing rumors. Because we can scare people too. And when you do, you win.

Is that what I think public debate should be about? Not at all.
Is this right? Absolutely not. But I’m sick of losing.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Laying a New Foundation

PHILADELPHIA – President Obama’s televised address to Congress next week is a big deal, and it is my fervent hope that The White House rises to the occasion. These sorts of appearances before a joint session are rare, underscoring the importance of what President Obama will have to say on Wednesday. And this particular address comes not only at a critical point for our country, but at a pivotal moment for the Democratic Party. After a resounding, once-in-a-generation rout of the Republican Party last November, the Democratic Party, true to its form, has managed to mangle its message and give the Republicans a clear, albeit illogical, path from the wilderness back to relevance. The GOP is steering the national debate, and in the process, again preventing health care from reaching millions of Americans.

Additionally, however, is the toll the internal divisions of the Democratic Party are hurting both the president and the Democrats. If health care fails, we can surely blame it on the Republicans, but there truly is nobody to blame except for moderate Democrats – people like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu and Max Baucus.

But the divisions within the party that have long existed but went on seeming hiatus for the Obama presidential honeymoon, are back in forms beyond the moderate Dems in the Senate. A big reason that the President’s poll numbers have recently plummeted is a significant drop in job approval from liberal voters and young voters, alike. Liberals and young people (often coterminous) are frustrated with the Administration’s eagerness to compromise on health care, irritated by the apparent desire to achieve bipartisanship over progress and tiring of the failure to withdraw more troops from Iraq or pass bills such as a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The President should take a cue from the late Speaker Tip O’Neill and remember to “dance with the one that brung ya.” He needs to articulate a plan for health insurance reform – and later for the rest of the “Change” we were promised – and unite the Democratic supermajority in the Senate and the Democratic House behind it. If he can get certain Republicans like Olympia Snowe on board for some it, great. But if not, so be it; He needs to accomplish something, with or without the Republican Party. And his Democratic base will be much more satisfied and eager to go work for candidates in 2010 if he does it without.

Obama is inclined towards compromise and bipartisanship and breaking down the divisions that have torn us apart in the past. That was central to his campaign in 2008, but it’s simply not realistic and it’s important for him to govern in the world in which we live, not an ideal world. This Republican Party and these Republican voters are not looking to compromise or unite; they are looking to destroy and divide. And they are utterly effective at both of those.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are terrible at marketing. The Republican Party managed to sell effectively sell a horrendous war by making it seem necessary for our survival. They might have, again, destroyed hope of health insurance reform by making it seem like a sure roadblock to our survival. They get everyone on the same page, using understandable (if wrong) concepts such as “death panels.” The Democrats, on the other hand, are barely in the same book and using concepts such as “access and affordability for every American while not restricting the choice and free market growth of any person or company.” It’s time for a winning sales pitch.

President Obama needs to make an unprecedented sales pitch on Wednesday. He needs to sell both the men and women sitting in front of him and the millions watching on television. (And Twittering it, for that matter.) By the time the speech concludes on Wednesday, it needs to be readily apparent that the situation is different than it is today. He needs to give the sort of address that historians look back on as a turning point. Fortunately, that is precisely what President Obama is best at.

This turning point is for not only the health care debate, but as I said earlier, the political atmosphere and the country itself. The President needs to lay a “New Foundation.” For the first several months of his administration, he has used this phrase with some regularity and it has not yet caught on as his trademark, as his “New Deal” or “Great Society.” Decades later, people fondly point to both of those sets of programs even if they cannot name a single element of either the “New Deal” or “Great Society.” They were bold, beneficial and transformative.

We need not simply such a program in the United States at this moment, but such a feeling. The sense that we are truly beginning anew. That the President has watched the bitterness brewing over the past decades displayed at town hall meetings and on cable television over this past summer and he has said, “enough.” That the President has heard too many horror stories about our health care system, seen too many die from lack of coverage and he has said, “enough.” That he has watched as his party’s noble goal has been morphed into a caricature of a death squad, and he has said, “enough.” Enough already.

It is time to lay a New Foundation. And it can begin on Wednesday night.