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Wisconsin, DOMA and Presidential Politics

02/25/2011 10:06 am 10:06:35 | Updated May 25, 2011

Just before the 2010 midterm elections, James Wyatt, a maintenance worker at a Chicago LGBT community center, made a series of astute observations that placed him in the company of seasoned political analysts: "Politicians only court gay voters at election time," he said. "Once they're elected, they're not fighting for things like civil unions or same-sex marriage or ending 'don't ask, don't tell' because they're hot-button issues." "We're just used as a piggyback for them to get into office."

This is the unfortunate nature of American politics: Citizens are only heard when they are needed. During most of a politician's tenure, citizens needs go unattended and their desires languish. But, nearer to election time, our leaders remember how they got elected. So they make promises and, occasionally, offer concrete rewards to galvanize turnout. Then, if they are victorious (most are), they forget us all over again.

We all lament this condition. Yet, too often we give our elected officials one more chance, a second shot at reminding us why we grew to love them. We want to forgive and forget. "Just one more vote," we think. And so the cycle continues.

These past two weeks, we began another such cycle. On Wednesday, the U.S Department of Justice announced that it will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that prevents the Federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. This is a massive policy change for the Obama Administration, one that should raise eyebrows. Why change a policy that the Administration had supported for over two years?

A similar question could be asked about President Obama's support of Wisconsin public workers. On February 16th, Mr. Obama addressed the legislation that would strip Wisconsin's state employees of almost all of their collective bargaining rights, calling it "an assault on unions." Though there have been similar assaults throughout the president's tenure, this was his most unequivocal show of support. To quote ABC Senior analyst Jon Karl, "President Obama was more decisive in denouncing [Wisconsin] Governor Scott Walker than Hosni Mubarak." Again, what's changed?

Many progressives have wanted to believe that these acts are examples of Mr. Obama's true character, the type of politician he can be when he follows his heart. The truth, unfortunately, is that the president's interventions are just the most recent sign that the 2012 election is around the corner -- nothing more.

Mr. Obama's reelection hangs in the balance. Three years ago, Wisconsin appeared a lock for the president. Candidate Obama won the state by 14% in 2008, and the Badger State has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee in over 24 years. Yet, in 2010, Wisconsin swung decisively to Republicans: Russ Feingold lost his re-election bid, and Republicans gained control of the Wisconsin Assembly, Senate, and Governor's Mansion. For the first time in over two decades, Wisconsin may be a battleground state during a presidential election.

Mr. Obama will not win the White House in 2012 without Wisconsin because, if Wisconsin falls to Republicans, it is likely that other key states, like Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will also turn red. In each state, unions are a key Democratic constituency. As Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant wrote, "unions are an important part of the core Democratic coalition -- from a purely mechanical standpoint, they matter in our elections." The "assaults" they face could maim their ability to fundraise and lobby effectively. Thus, Mr. Obama must stand with Wisconsin unions now or risk a contagion effect that dismantles unions across the country.

Everyone, including Republicans, knows that "to take on the well-organized and politically connected teachers and state workers, however, is to strike at the heart of the Democratic Party," but the LGBT community's role in Democratic Party politics often is less apparent. Conventional wisdom suggested that LGBT voters and their allies, while a vocal constituency, were an unimportant voting block because they are few in number. Yet, in 2010, LGBT voters proved their worth -- by defecting. According to NY Times, 31% of LGBT voters supported Republicans (a 12% increase from 2008) and helped the GOP to secure an electoral blowout in key congressional districts.

Thus, Mr. Obama has been taking steps to win these voters back. He began by finally supporting and successfully repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) in late 2010. But many in the LGBT movement remained critical. Repealing DADT was not seen as a "hard" decision for the president. It was long overdue and only came after he received support from mainstream military leaders.

DOMA is different. It is a much tougher political decision, primarily because it could rally conservatives. Consequently, Mr. Obama and Democratic operatives are hoping that it gives them a bargaining chip as the election cycle approaches. Like union members, Team Obama needs LGBT voters and allies to vote in November. More importantly, he needs them to fundraise and phone bank and organize in the months leading up to the election. The repeal of DADT and the new stance on DOMA, the Administration will argue, are signs of progress, "down payments" for support in 2012.

A key question remains: Will labor and the LGBT community forgive the president's slights in light of these recent returns on their investment or will they spurn him? Or, better yet, should they reward the president for being like any other politician?

The answer: What choice do they have? Like all Progressives, in 2012, these two groups will either cast a ballot for Mr. Obama, or leave their fate to more hostile suitors. Still, having to vote for a part-time lover doesn't seem fair.