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Friday Talking Points -- Most Impressive, Mr. President

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We're throwing our usual format away today, because this was a momentous and historic week in American politics, and we thought it needed the entire column to address. Call it an extended rant, rather than talking points. There are two parts to this rant. The first is positive. The second is negative. Then, I (hopefully) change it all back to positive at the end.

Most Impressive

We've had to create a new award today, because our usual Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week doesn't even begin to cover it. Instead, we award President Barack Hussein Obama our first-ever Most Impressive Democrat (On This Issue) In My Lifetime award. We fully expect the MID(OTI)IML award to be a rare one indeed. If the column is still around to issue a second one, we'd actually be (pleasantly) surprised. You'll notice, however, that we did think ahead, as the careful wording means that Obama himself could win a second MID(OTI)IML, if he'd just pick another issue on which to be so downright impressive, in the future. In addition to the big award, we've got several Bravo! honorable mentions to individually hand out, as well.

Bravo! to Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden Junior for his part in this historic week. Biden either (depending on which you believe) "got out in front of his skis" on the gay marriage issue in an interview last Sunday, or was the advance man for the rollout of a new presidential policy. Whichever version you're a fan of, Biden did indeed play a crucial role in this drama, and deserves credit for doing so. Arne Duncan had a part to play as well, but Biden was the guy who got the ball rolling.

Joe Biden said one thing during his interview that I found fascinating, because it is something I've personally believed for years. Biden was making the broader point that America and American culture had changed, when it came to the subject of being gay. Biden said:

I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far. And I think -- people fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand.

Biden's comment about Will and Grace is what resonated with me, because I've been saying similar things for years now. American culture -- television and movies in particular -- had a lot to do with the growing acceptance of being gay in America. Gays used to be a caricature in pop culture, when they were even acknowledged at all. Think Three's Company, for instance. But soon after, Hollywood and corporate broadcasting began to have their own very slow evolution. Billy Crystal was a gay character on Soap. Two decades later, gay characters began popping up on shows like Roseanne, Friends, Melrose Place and even All My Children. Then Ellen DeGeneres "came out" on Ellen. Soon after, Will and Grace opened the floodgates, which led to gay characters appearing even on hard-bitten cop shows like NYPD Blue. In the movie world, the turning point was likely the moving drama Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks playing the sympathetic lead role of a gay man with AIDS. All of these cultural references probably did more to "mainstream" acceptance of gay people into the American culture than anything else. Biden was right about Will and Grace, and he had the grace to say so, beautifully. Today, it's a rare sitcom or drama that doesn't have a gay character. That's a big change, and a big evolution, and it has changed the conversation in America -- especially with young people -- more than anything else. So Bravo, Joe!

Bravo! to Obama's re-election team. Politically, this week was handled perfectly. Last Friday, some rather weak economic numbers were released. Mitt Romney had planned to use this issue to bludgeon Obama all week long. Guess what? It didn't happen. Obama, instead, was in the spotlight this week, looking good. Romney was pushed off to the side, and pushed off message, and wound up the week trying to defend being a bully in high school. That is a good week for the Obama political camp. The more the subject of gay marriage is talked about, the more mean-spirited and intolerant the Republican position looks. Obama, in the political media parlance, "won the week" and he won it big time. That's a clear victory for the political wonks, and they deserve credit for how smooth this entire rollout truly was. Well done, Obama team!

And our final Bravo! goes to none other than Barack Obama himself. If you take the president at his word, he has struggled with this issue for a long time. Obama is no different than a lot of Americans in this respect. Gay rights have not just appeared on the American scene overnight -- millions and millions of minds had to be changed for their now-growing acceptance. People who either hated gays, feared gays, were disgusted with the whole gay concept, or largely indifferent and uncaring on the issue have all moved solidly into the pro-gay rights camp -- most of them, for the remainder of their lives. It is a major realignment of thought, but once it happens, almost nobody turns back to what they believed previously. Barack Obama has not been hostile to gay rights up until this point, but he personally believed that gay marriage was a step too far. There are millions of Americans who think exactly the same thing -- including millions of Democrats and others who voted for Obama last time around.

Obama, if you take his words at face value, completed this evolution this year in two ways: asking himself how he would have voted as a state senator if a gay marriage law was being passed in his state, and seeing the entire issue through the eyes of his daughters. He saw the arc of history, and he saw which was the side of right and equality and justice for all. He overcame his religious beliefs to see the issue differently, as one of civil rights. These are momentous changes in the way any human being sees his or her world. They are not to be belittled, because (as I said) millions of other Americans are traveling the same exact path, and not all of them are precisely where the gay rights people are, or even where the president now is.

In a word, President Obama is showing leadership on the issue. Now, there are those who disagree with that statement, which we'll get to in a moment. But the President of the United States of America just used his "bully pulpit" to speak out on an issue that no president has ever done before in such a fashion. This is history-making stuff, folks. This is what presidents like to refer to as "legacy" stuff. One hundred years from now, schoolchildren will read about this week in their schoolbooks. It is momentous.

For showing such leadership, for leading in the right direction, and for completing his evolution on the issue of gay marriage, President Obama not only deserves accolades and cheers, he also earns the first-ever Most Impressive Democrat (On This Issue) In My Lifetime award. Bravo, indeed, Mister President!

Most Disappointing

This section really should be labeled with a word that I can't remember where I heard first ("Dear Abby" springs to mind, but that just can't be right...). It is a one-word term for a sentiment which I simply must apply to many belittlers of Obama this past week: Qwitchyerbitchin'!

Seriously, it seemed like President Obama didn't get the worst criticism of his announcement from the far right this past week, but rather from his own base. This is exasperating in a number of ways, so we've got a number of Qwitchyerbitchin' awards to hand out. If you feel like this is going to be too annoying to read, then I wouldn't blame you if you just skipped the rest of this article. But you have been warned. Nobody's ox is going to be spared, in this gore-fest.

Qwitchyerbitchin' to everyone on the Democratic side who use the gay marriage issue as a litmus test. Seriously, just stop, OK? The most ironic part of this week, to me, was the tut-tutting which happened after Senator Richard Lugar was "primaried" out of office by a Tea Party challenger. Tears were shed, handkerchiefs were clutched, woe-is-us choruses filled the airwaves over how the Republicans could possibly force out of their party an impressive politician because he simply wasn't pure enough. If you can't see where I'm going with this by now, you need to have your irony-meter adjusted down at the shop.

People who feel perfectly fine expressing dismay that the Republican Party has such fierce litmus tests for office then also feel perfectly fine turning around and flatly stating that anyone who doesn't fully believe in gay marriage equality is simply unfit for office, and will "never get my vote." Putting down Republicans for not having a "big tent" party is stupid if you are arguing for the same thing on your side of the aisle.

I welcome Democrats who are not fully behind gay marriage. My hopes for them are that they will evolve eventually. If a politician votes the way I would vote on every other issue, then this is simply not a disqualifier for me, personally. I realize others feel differently -- there are one-issue voters on all sorts of things. But choose one or the other. If you're for litmus tests and party purity and "small tent" politics, then please don't comment on the Republicans being more efficient in their own purity drive.

Qwitchyerbitchin' anyone who is a leader on gay rights who said anything slightly snarky about Obama's decision this week. You folks need a wake-up call, seriously. President Obama has done more for the gay rights activists than he has done for pretty much any other Democratic activist group you can name. You guys have been in the driver's seat for awhile, now. Here is a quick, and incomplete, list of the other Democratic core constituencies for whom Obama has done precious little or even moved backwards: Labor, African-Americans, Hispanics, the medical marijuana community, civil liberties activists, abortion rights activists, voting rights activists, the single-payer legions, the government-option horde, the anti-Wall Streeters, the end-the-Bush-tax-cuts majority, and a good argument could also be made for the anti-war crowd. There are a whole lot of Democrats -- many of whom feel just as strongly about their issue as you do -- who have gotten very little, nothing, or an outright slap in the face from President Obama in return for their support. They -- most of them -- are still going to turn out to vote for President Obama's second term. Most of them are hoping that Obama will "see the light" on their issue and have the same sort of epiphany we just witnessed this week on gay marriage -- especially in a second term where he won't face the pressures of re-election.

But the fact remains -- in terms of specific legislation, in terms of how he has used his Justice Department, in terms of actually overturning bigoted legislation from the past -- Barack Obama is going to go down in history as the man who did more for gay rights than any other president -- and I even include most future presidents in that estimation. If Bill Clinton was the first "black president" than Barack Obama is going to be the first "gay president."

Qwitchyerbitchin', on whether Obama "went far enough" or not. Obama is not King. He cannot change everything, overnight. He's going to disappoint you on some facet in some way. But ask yourselves -- everyone who is parsing his statement and belittling how timid his stance now is -- would you rather have a president to convince to move even further on your issue who does support the concept of gay marriage (in any fashion), or would you rather have a president who had never made the news Obama just made? Which do you think will be easier to advance your cause? You just won an enormous victory, and all the rest of your future victories are going to be a whale of a lot easier because of what just took place.

Now, this sort of feeling can easily deteriorate into rank jealousy, among the Democratic groups who have not seen Obama's strong support or dramatic movement for their various issues. But seriously, gay rights activists, almost all of the rest of the Democratic Party is right next to you, cheering whenever Barack Obama moves America closer to a place where being gay will be as little remarkable as having green eyes, or being left handed. But you'll have to excuse us, because sometimes the ones outside the debate are the ones cheering loudest. We look over at the gay rights activists next to us in the midst of our cheering, and we see you standing there with your arms crossed, grumbling. We've never gotten to cheer in such a fashion on our single issue (whatever it may be), and it is truly bizarre not to hear you cheering along with us. So qwitchyerbitchin' and join in the celebration. Give the man one week of cheering, and then you can return to pushing as hard as possible to advance your cause in whatever way you see fit. We'll be trying to convince Obama to move on our issues, too, but at least give the man some credit during his moment in the sunshine.

Qwitchyerbitchin' to all the people dissecting the politics of Obama's announcement. We must, in all honesty, include ourselves in this category, to show how eminently fair-handed these rants can be. Ahem.

Political wonks are fascinating creatures (once again, including myself), aren't they? The entire universe is seen through the glass of politics, darkly. Nothing happens -- no leaf falls -- without us putting a massive political spin on it (before it even hits the ground). We fall all over each other to parse how many black votes Obama will lose, versus how big the enthusiasm will be among the youth, to what it will mean for him in the swing states, to watching the polling with eagle's eyes to see if it quivers. The rest of America (quite rightly) gets pretty sick of this sort of thing, since it really is geared towards a very particular audience -- other wonks.

Is Obama's leadership on gay marriage "good politics" for him, or "bad politics" for him? Well, you know what, we'll have plenty of time to discuss that sort of thing in the weeks and months to come. We should all just sit back, take a deep breath, and (once again) allow Obama his moment in the sun. If it turns out to be bad for Obama politically, then it is even more important that we acknowledge his leadership now. Leaders lead, and sometimes not everyone follows. That is the price of leadership -- being willing to take that gamble, and accept that risk. If it turns out Obama does gain support for his move, then we've all got plenty of time later to sneer at the cynical politics that went into his decision. For now, just get off the political high horse and stand next to everyone else in the crowd who is loudly cheering what Obama just did. Sometimes it's more important to cheer than it is to offer our sage thoughts on why each person is (or is not) cheering. Again, speaking for and to myself: "Get over ourselves, eh?" Obama just did something historic. History will remember what he said this week, not what we say, which should introduce a little humility into our writings -- humility which is in very short supply, at times.

Qwitchyerbitchin', in a similar vein, to those who are riding the cynical horse. Did Obama "evolve" just for more campaign donations? Oh, please. Obama's not going to be short of money later this year. He really won't be. Sure, there are plenty of gay rights donors. But you know what? That should spur every other activist group to action. If you're cynical enough to believe that absolutely everything in politics boils down to the money, then go out and raise millions of dollars for your cause! If it's "pay to play" then get your own leverage with the president. You want Obama to pay more attention to you than to the gay activists? Well, since we're atop the cynical pony, then pony up or qwitchyerbitchin'!

Qwitchyerbitchin' to all the people who know -- really know -- exactly what went on inside Obama's brain. These people are ignoring what Obama is saying (again, to my embarrassment, this includes me, as well). Maybe Obama is a Machiavellian multidimensional chess player, and none of what was said in the past week was anything short of sheer calculated politics. Maybe -- to put it another way -- Obama is just flat-out lying about his own personal journey in this regard, and the whole thing has been politics from Day One.

Isn't it odd that those who are arguing this point of view are falling into the trap of arguing exactly what Obama's political enemies have argued from the beginning? Righties -- for approximately the past four years -- have told everyone who would listen to "ignore what Obama's actually saying, here's what he's really saying." This is the same logic that came up with the supposed "Obama apology tour" (in which he never actually apologized for anything), and even birtherism. Obama's just a big fat liar, and we have the omniscient viewpoint of what is really going on in Obama's head. It's interesting to note (irony alert!) that these same folks are the ones who are, this week, arguing that Obama should be taken at his word and that the whole thing was just Joe Biden and gay donors pushing the president into his position, instead of what Obama is actually saying.

Give the guy a break. Take him at his word. He has personally and religiously struggled with this issue. He did not come to his views overnight, and he is a human being. How can anyone get indignant over something that we are projecting on Obama, when we haven't the tiniest shred of evidence for such analysis? Respect the ability of all people to make up their own minds. Respect the fact that everyone who disagrees about gay marriage is not merely some caricature bigot. The entire American public is "evolving" on this issue, and such things don't happen overnight. Reach out to those struggling with the issue with love and help them to walk the path to where you are. Don't belittle them for being further behind than you, and don't call them names and scream at them. Barack Obama walks a path many are walking, and all on that path should be given the basic respect for their opinions, no matter where on that path they currently are. In other words, qwitchyerbitchin', folks.

Change we can believe in

Now that we've got all of that off our chest (pause for a cry of "Tell us how you really feel, Chris!" from the peanut gallery), let's get back on a little more positive note, to wrap things up.

It's rare when you see history being made. It's even rarer when you see history being made, and it is the good kind of history. And it's even rarer still to know when it happens just how historic it truly will become. That was the past week.

This is the "change you can believe in" that millions upon millions of Americans voted for when they voted for Barack Obama. This isn't the only change we voted for, and a lot of change that some of us voted for simply hasn't happened. But that's OK for now, because this was indeed the biggest change we've ever seen from Obama. This was a momentous week for Obama, and for America. This is the sort of inspirational thing a lot of Democrats have been looking for. Sure, Obama changing his own personal views doesn't change any laws overnight. Sure, it doesn't go far enough. Sure, politics was involved.

None of that should really matter, at this precise moment in time. None of it is going to matter in that long arc of history. President Obama just announced to the country that discrimination against gay marriage was, in his opinion, wrong. He took a stand for equality. He took political risks for doing so. He showed leadership. He showed strength that even people who disagree with him on gay marriage will respect, as a politician and as a human being. He showed his love for his daughters, and his hope that they grow up in a world where they can continue to treat their friends with two mommies or two daddies as no big deal at all.

And that, my friends, is change I can believe in.

 

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