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When should politicians lie?

15 May, 2012 1 comment

I was quite sceptical of Barack Obama from the time he announced his candidacy for the presidency in early 2007. I supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, tho did support Obama against John McCain. I was never quite convinced by his rhetoric, and his inability to manage expectations played a part in subsequent disillusionment with his presidency. For example, making a commitment just after taking office that he would close Guantanamo Bay within a year, something that has yet to happen, was an odd political move. I would have liked to have seen a very different, market-based to health care reform, which could have tackled long care costs better than the Affordable Care Act, and to be clearly constitutional to boot. He also exhibits brazen self-regard, more so than we usually see from politicians. So I’m a natural cynic when it comes to Obama.

But tho I began my post here on Thursday welcoming President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality by referencing his changing positions since 1996, as of now, I don’t see that it makes sense to critical of him. Let’s assume that Obama’s position since 1996 has been favourable towards allowing gay couples to marry, and “to fight all efforts by those who would stop this”. If to be the president who would during his first term in office endorse same-sex marriage, maybe he had to be a candidate who opposed it. His official process of evolution on the question mirrored the evolving views of the median American voter.

Some have been critical of Obama for not going further, and stating clearly that he would work to see change on a federal level. On KCRW’s Left, Right and Center this weekend, I heard Robert Scheer present the case that his failure of courage undermined the case he was making; to be consistent he should insist on immediate action. But that would be getting ahead of himself in a way that would be counter-productive. He has already ordered his department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purpose as only that between a man and a woman; he has given his support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would conversely recognise at a federal level any marriage legitimately performed at a state level.

While we expect political leaders to be ahead, the leadership on moral rights cannot all come from the head of the executive. We can expect them to play their part, but they lose their effectiveness if they are too many steps ahead, even if they are right.

The same panel on Left, Right and Center included David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who welcomed the move, and hoped the Republicans would see reason on this question sooner rather than later, but feared a decision at a federal level would lead to decades-long division as in Roe v. Wade. The pace of the demographic shift makes that seem unlikely to me, and I would welcome a Supreme Court decision that affirmed equal protection to gay and lesbian couples under the Fourteenth Amendment. But it is fair that President Obama wait to see how that judicial process is to proceed before publicly intervening again.

Consider that ten years, it was still criminal in 2002 for two men to have sex (and in practice, as Dale Carpenter recounts, simply to live together as a couple); to borrow a phrase used in the New Yorker Political Scene podcast, imagine trying to convince someone that year that President Barack Hussein Obama had announced that he supported gay marriage, and political analysts were not sure if it would benefit, hurt him, or make no difference. It would seem like something out of a Stephen Fry alternate history novel.

While writing this piece, I came across an historical analogy for Obama’s evolution on gay rights, that of President Abraham Lincoln on slavery. Steve Chapman on Reason.com makes reference to the great Frederick Douglass,

The former slave and black leader Frederick Douglass might have understood. What he said of Lincoln’s approach to slavery could also be said of Obama on same-sex marriage: ‘Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent. But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.’

With Chapman, I think Barack Obama is taking the right approach, and he will be deserve to be remembered in years to come as the first president to take a stand on what would later be assumed so obviously to be right. And he could not have achieved this without being coy about his true feelings on the matter.

<b>Edit:</b> I was asked on Twitter to clarify exactly when I think politicians should lie. It is specific to a time of cultural change on a within a country where the president would hurt the momentum of their own cause on a question. I’m not talking about Barack Obama pretending to be a sceptic about international trade during the 2008 Democratic primaries, or about Enda Kenny and James Reilly pretending to be committed to Roscommon hospital in the last general election.

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