The black Kennedy has become the black LBJ.
In the hyper-political circles I travel in, the release of Robert Caro's latest Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power, was received with the glee that's usually reserved for an Obama rally. To paraphrase Joe Biden, the fourth book in Caro's promised five-volume LBJ biography is a big flipping deal.
So when Obama came out for gay marriage, I couldn't help thinking about a passage early in Caro's book in which his aides cautioned him against spending political capital on the Civil Rights Act. "What the hell's the presidency for?" asked Johnson. Johnson rose through the legislative ranks as a segregationist Southerner, so when he ended a speech to a joint session of Congress with the phrase "We shall overcome," Johnson fundamentally changed the American political landscape.
That's the nearest equivalent to Obama's evolution on gay marriage, but apparently it's not change that Republicans can believe in. The leader of the Log Cabin Republicans, the pro-gay outhouse for the Republicans big tent, even called Obama's support for marriage equality "offensive and callous" because it came the day after North Carolinians banned same-sex marriage in their constitution.
When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation." Obama should have an easier time of it because Democrats have already lost the Deep South, where a good chunk of people still don't approve of interracial marriage. The rest of the country has moved on.
The real question isn't how Obama's support for marriage equality will affect his re-election chances. Romney's family, after all, is only a couple generations away from living in Mexico to avoid laws against polygamy. And that's before you bring up the letter he wrote to the Log Cabin Republicans to seek their support for his 1994 race against Sen. Ted Kennedy in which he claimed, "I am more convinced than ever that as we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent." All this makes Romney a slightly damaged floor model for traditional marriage.
Where does the Republican Party go from here? Yes, Democrats have lost the South, but Republicans have lost blacks in the process. Republicans only get a third of the Hispanic vote on a good day, and they haven't had one of those for a while. Republican opposition to equal pay, reproductive health care and nice manners has widened the gender gap, and now gays and lesbians will be part of the Democratic base vote for a generation.
But what of the moderate Republicans who are staring in horror as their party digs foxholes on the wrong side of history's last civil rights battle?
"Long term it's probably not a comfortable place to be," said former Republican congressional leader Tom Davis. "It's a generational issue."
Socially conservative Republicans are so, um, married to their opposition for gay rights that the party can't moderate on the issue without losing their church-going base. But Republicans can't stand pat without losing moderates such as Ted Olson, the lawyer who argued Bush v. Gore for the Republicans.
"It is very sad to me that people who belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln are resisting so strenuously the equality and decency and integrity and treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters," Olson said. "This seems to be one of the last major civil-rights battles of our country. And for people in our country to come out in numbers like this and say, 'Well, we don't want the persons next door -- who are decent, God-fearing, taxpaying, obeying-the-law citizens who simply want to have happiness like the rest of us' -- to say 'No, I have that right and you can't have it.' That just seems mean to me."
It's going to be hard for the Republican Party to claim the mantle of freedom and liberty if they oppose those values for people they don't like. In order to function as a viable political party, Republicans will have drop their opposition to marriage equality just as they eventually had to do with racial integration.
The alternative is to stay on the wrong side of history. The rest of us are moving on.
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