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The Nation

Is There a Gay in the House?

I dutifully sat through 85 minutes of C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate's debate on same-sex marriage before my TV mysteriously clicked over to the French Open on ESPN. They were rebroadcasting the Martina Hingis-Kim Clijsters match from the day before, and I already knew the result -- but it was a whole lot more thrilling than the cooked bullshit coming from our nation's capital.

As far as I can tell, Senators Brownback and Inhofe are upset that more than half of Swedish and Norwegian children are born out of wedlock. Senator Brownback attributes this to same-sex marriage, and Senator Inhofe worries that "millions of them are going to end up on welfare." As the U.S. recklessly pursues its unilateralist foreign policy, it's nice to know that some Repbulicans care about those poor bastards trapped in the Swedish welfare state. Unless this means we have to add Sweden to the axis of evil. Freedom meatballs anyone?

Senator Santorum is still vexed about the Lawrence v. Texas decision and spent a lot of time quoting Scalia's dissenting opinion which defends state laws against masturbation. Perhaps he's taking cues from a certain Ms. Sandra Rodrigues of Utah who, according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, sat outside the Senate all week with a sign that read "Stop Same Sex Marriage: It Endorses Masturbation." Even though Santorum faces a tough reelection battle in Pennsylvania, I'm glad he listens to people outside his home state who think that kids have entirely too much time on their hands.

I could go on and on with more highlights, but frankly, I'm a narcissistic gay man and not much of this debate was about me. As Michael Scherer points out, "if you listen closely, the leaders who oppose single-sex unions refuse to talk about gay people. They talk about activist judges, welfare rolls, the rights of voters and the birthrate of single mothers in Scandinavia. But there is not a gay man, a lesbian woman or a bisexual teenager in the mix."

And also, I've already had my say. Along with Lisa Duggan, I've argued that the gay marriage debate ought really to be about the future of household security.

Think Red Thoughts

Apropos of my last post about Francine Busby's special election loss, National Journal's Hotline blog has a good summary of where some of the most competitive House races will be in 2006.

The locations: in formerly red districts, in many red states, that went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004. Of the 40 most competitive projected House races in 2006, 23 will occur in states Bush carried.

Of the seven Senate Republicans Democrats hope to knock off, five represent red states: Arizona, Montana, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Whether Democrats have the institutional capacity to compete and win in some of these states remains a very real question as we get closer to November.

With Bush's approval rating over 50 percent in just three states, obviously the color map is changing. Red areas are turning blue, or at least purple.

But the climate Francine Busby faced in San Diego may not be so atypical. For Democrats to retake one or both houses of Congress, they'll need to win more than 45 percent in these districts or states, no matter how red they are--or once were.

No Majority for Discrimination

President Bush threw what was left of his influence on Capitol Hill behind the move by social conservatives to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But when the votes were counted Wednesday, the president was not even able to muster a majority in the Senate.

When the critical test came on the election-year proposal to amend the Constitution to essentially ban same-sex marriage -- along with a number of other basic protections for gay and lesbian families -- only 49 senators voted to move the amendment forward.

That was far short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, close off debate and force a vote on the actual amendment. And it was a full 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment.

On a more politically pragmatic level, Wedesday's tally put the ban one short of a majority in a Senate that is supposedly on the side of the president who has gone out of his way to make same-sex marriage an issue. So significant was the failure that White House press secretary Tony Snow felt compelled to report that Bush was not "despondent" over the result.

Perhaps he should be, as Bush's inability to keep even his own partisans in line on an issue he has chosen to make something of a focal point of his second-term agenda was striking.

Seven Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- voted with 41 Democrats to block cloture. [Two of the Republicans who opposed cloture, Gregg and Specter, had previously been amendment supporters but switched to the opposition Wednesday.] Only two Democrats who happen to be up for reelection this year in socially-conservative states, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with 47 Republicans to end debate.

Notably, the three senators who did not vote Wednesday -- Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have all expressed opposition to amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Hagel has been particularly blunt, telling a Nebraska newspaper in 2005, "I'm a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don't think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That's a state issue."

The amendment, which Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, correctly identified as "an instrument of bigotry and prejudice" will continue to rattle around the Capitol -- look for a meaningless House vote on the issue next month -- as Republicans try to use it as a tool to energize the party's increasingly listless base. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, explained during the cloture debate, "This is not about the preservation of marriage. This is about the preservation of a [Republican] majority. I think, sadly, most people realize there's political motivation here."

Wednesday's vote cannot provide much inspiration for the GOP, however. With so many of its own senators voting to block the amendment's progress -- including incumbents such as Chafee and Snowe who are up for election this year -- the Republicans are going to have a hard time suggesting that expanding their party's majority in the Senate will move the country any closer to a federal ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other protections for gay and lesbian families.

Indeed, there has been a good deal of grumbling within the Republican Senate caucus -- as evidenced by the seven dissenting votes that were cast Wednesday -- about the wisdom of trying to gin up a debate on social issues when the attention of the American public seems to be so firmly fixed on the war in Iraq and concerns about the strength of the economy and health care costs.

That won't stop social conservatives from pushing their discrimination amendments. They'll win in some states, as they did Tuesday in Alabama, where voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage. But a similar amendment is on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall, and polls and pattersn suggest that it could be the first such state-based proposal to lose. More significantly, the high-profile, high-spending amendment fight in Wisconsin is expected to stir interest in the fall election on the part of young people and other traditionally low-turnout populations that Democratic strategists think will be drawn to the polls to oppose the amendment but stay around to vote for Democrats.

There's no question that playing the discrimination card has helped Republicans by drawing socially-conservative voters to the polls in recent years. But the low-road approach seems to be wearing thin, even for Republicans. McCain, who some had predicted would vote for cloture and the marriage ban in order to improve his prospects among the social-conservative voters who will be key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination process, cast a firm "no" vote and then took a swing at the core argument for the amendment, telling the Senate, "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."

That is true. It is also true that support for discrimination against gays and lesbians is waning in America, especially among younger voters. Time and experience are moving citizens toward what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as "the better angels of our nature" -- and away from the notion that sowing devisions and encouraging discrimination will somehow make either families or the Republic stronger.

Illegal Immigration: A GOP Issue that Works?

Nancy Pelosi, put away that tape measure! That seems to be the conventional wisdom the day after a key congressional election in San Diego. And it may even be correct--that is, Pelosi should not assume she will be picking out new curtains for the House Speaker's office following this fall's elections. In felonious Duke Cunningham's district, another Republican, former Representative Brian Bilbray, was able to hold the seat for the GOP, beating back the Democrat 49 to 45 percent. If the Ds cannot pick up a seat when an R is nabbed on bribery charges and tossed into prison, that's a sign that the "culture of corruption" charge (see Jack Abramoff) they are campaigning upon may not do the trick in November. (Representative William Jefferson, a Democrat accused of taking $100,000 bribe, is sure not helping on this front.) Cunningham's district was a Republican area. But to regain the House, the Dems need to do well in heretofore GOP districts.

Without reading too much into the results of one race, there is good reason for Democrats to worry: illegal immigration. Bilbray hyped his support for tough border enforcement, siding with the House Republicans' keep-'em-out/toss-'em-out approach and attacking the Bush-favored Senate compromise position that blends a (convoluted) path-to-citizenship with steps to beef up the border. And that might have won him the race. During the campaign, Bilbray called for building a fence "from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." Celebrating his victory, Bilbray said, "The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem. In fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly."

Now nervous-Nelly Republicans have a test-case to apply to their own races. If it's a good fit for the district, Republican candidates will surely sound the illegal immigrant alarm to drive base-voters to the voting booth. Many were probably planning to do this already. Bilbray is proof it works.

When Latinos were out in the streets weeks ago to protest the House Republicans' harsh immigration bill, there was talk among commentators about the rising political clout of Hispanic-American voters. But rallies do not make voting patterns. And that clout may not arrive quick enough to help Democrats in five months. Historically, it takes a long time for new voting blocs to vote. Over the years, the greatest predictor of whether someone will vote in an election has been whether they voted in the previous one. Even if Americans of Latin American origin are enraged by conservative Republicans, that anger may not register at the polls (particularly in an off-year election) for some time.

On the other mano, conservative voters pissed off about the trumped-up crisis of illegal immigration are already accustomed to expressing their outrage on election day. It may well be that it is not to the GOP's advantage to make illegal immigration a national issue in the election. (The Wall-only approach divides the party, puts off business supporters, and might alienate moderate voters.) But in many a district, bashing illegal immigrants will serve the party well. In these spots, if the choice of targets for voter are either a corrupt party controlling Congress or illegal immigrants sneaking into America to steal jobs, commit crimes, alter the culture, and perhaps engage in terrorist acts, guess who wins.

This week, Senate Republicans tried to play the gay-marriage card--and they failed to defeat a Democrat-led filibuster. But they did throw a chewed-up bone to their social conservative supporters. Congressional Republicans also intend to wave the flag-burning issue soon. It's possible these hot-button wedge issues don't juice up Republican-leaning voters as much as they used to. But illegal immigrants may trump gays and flag-burners as Enemy No. 1 for the GOPers this year. In some districts--maybe critical districts--Jack Abramoff will be no match for that.

With Enemies Like These

The best thing to ever happen to gay rights in the country is Bill Frist's decision to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Everyone knows this is a lame attempt to pander to the evangelical voters he needs to win the Republican presidential primary. And that's the point. Everyone knows this, even evangelicals.

Consider the record Frist has piled up as Senate Majority Leader.

His solution for higher gas prices--a $100 tax rebate--was so pathetic that even Rush Limbaugh asked if the Senator thought Americans were a bunch of whores. Frist was intent on using the nuclear option to stop Democratic filibustering of conservative judges but was undercut by seven members of his own caucus who joined seven Democrats to avoid mutually assured destruction.

When it comes to flip-flopping, Bill Frist makes John Kerry look like a monomaniacal ideologue. First Dr. Frist was against stem research before he was for them. First he was against the Dubai Ports deal before the White House pulled on his leash and explained the price of his promotion to majority leader and then he was for it.

And then there were the simply bizarre moments when the Harvard trained doctor sounded like Pat Robertson. He wasn't sure if kissing causes AIDS but he was quite sure that the video of Terri Schiavo proved that she was not in a permanent vegetative state.

With enemies like Bill Frist, the gay marriage debate should look forward to gaining more and more friends.

After Busby: Almost is Not Enough

Democrats keep talking about moral victories this election cycle. But to take back the Congress in 2006, they'll need to convert symbolic wins into actual ones.

In a normal election cycle, Republicans would've handily defeated Paul Hackett in Ohio (who was narrowly defeated by Republican Jean Schmidt in a special election last August) and Francine Busby in California. Busby lost to Republican Brian Bilbray in a special election last night by 49 to 45 percent, in heavily Republican districts. But this is not a typical political year, and for Democrats to take back the House or the Senate, they must pick up seats in places like Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The results last night in San Diego's 50th district prove the GOP's resolve. Republicans are still better at winning elections than Democrats are. Democrats had two months to try and increase Busby's total above the 44 percent she took in the crowded April primary, the same number John Kerry garnered in the conservative district. Those numbers barely moved, and turnout remained especially low.

Perhaps more disconcerting for Democrats, illegal immigration seemed to matter more than the "culture of corruption" message Busby hammered in Duke Cunningham's former district.

In 2004, Democrats and progressives were convinced that they had a better turnout operation than Republicans did, and the country was as anti-Bush as they were. The country's appetite for Republicans has certainly soured since then, but it's way too early to begin calling Nancy Pelosi "Speaker," as some Democrats are already doing.

A note of caution, after a long political night.

Citizens 1, Corporations 0

In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.

In Northern California's Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights -- based on the supposed "personhood" of the combines -- as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.

Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.

But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.

Measure T was backed by the county's Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens -- whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation -- are a major force in local politics.

The "Yes on T" campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan "Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy," to the references to Tuesday's election as a modern-day "Boston Tea Party," to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States -- and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism -- so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.

Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant's big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county's abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.

That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, "Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power."

"Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights," explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. "But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person."

Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T's passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!

Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday's vote as nothing less than the beginning of "the process of reclaiming our county" from the "tyranny" of concentrated economic and political power.

Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months."

It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of '76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging "empires" of our age.

Quarantine the Religious Right

Happy 6/6/06! Congrats to Ann Coulter for releasing her book on this Satanic date. And speaking of superstitious madness, as long as we're putting dangerous public health threats under quarantine, let's not forget the religious lunatics. As my colleague Richard Kim has been writing, U.S. HIV/AIDS policy shows that the sexual hysteria of the religious right can have lethal consequences. The political morass surrounding Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is another example. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a vaccine for the two strains of HPV which cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year, over 9,700 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and some 3,700 will die from it. So this vaccine could save thousands of lives.

What's been holding this bold new innovation back? Moral panic. The religious right initially opposed it on the grounds that protecting people from an STD would undermine the no-sex-before-marriage message. After all, what could reinforce that message better than the threat of death? Even groups like Focus on the Family have dropped their opposition to the vaccine itself -- probably realizing their position would seem indefensible to most thinking people, and that this was a battle they were going to lose -- but they're still fighting a proposal to make it mandatory for public junior high school students. This is also an appallingly irresponsible position, but one much easier to sell to the public, as it exploits deep anxieties about children and sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control, and most scientists who study HPV, the vaccine is most effective if given before kids become sexually active, so let's hope the cooler heads prevail. In any case, the fact that the Bush FDA has agreed to approve this vaccine at all represents at least a temporary victory over the forces of reaction and ignorance.

Parlez Vous DeLay?

We knew Tom DeLay was leaving Congress this week. But we didn't think he'd be so French about it.

Yes, tonight Texas Republicans will be toasting their former majority leader at Le Paradou, billed as "DC's finest contemporary French restaurant."

We suggest he dines on the caged quail (specially shot by Dick Cheney). Maybe he can ask Jean Marie Le Pen for a good red.

DeLay once excelled at the time-honored profession of mocking the French. He began speeches during the 2004 campaign by saying: "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.'" When Senator Tom Daschle criticized President Bush's cowboy diplomacy, DeLay responded: "Fermez la bouche, Monsier Daschle."

Rough translation: shut up.

But now The Hammer is returning to his roots. Asked about the restaurant selection, DeLay's spokeswoman quipped, "I trust that you know Mr. DeLay is French."

Bon Appetite! And, from the bottom of our hearts, Au Revoir!