by Paul Goldman
As Yogi Berra said, some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence. Last week, President Obama came out strong for same-sex marriage. According to the New York Times poll released yesterday, most Americans believe the President’s position is based on pure politics, not principle. In the South, this politics over principle view is likely to be even more skewed toward it being a political stance. Whether the public is right or wrong in this analysis is not the issue: as they say in business, the customer is always right. These poll results suggest a backlash potential in the South.
In the wee hours of this morning, something that seemed a slam dunk deal – the election by the General Assembly of Tracy Thorne-Bogland, Richmond’s chief deputy commonwealth attorney as the state’s “first openly gay judge” according to the RTD – unravelled.
His nomination was rejected in the House and not even brought up for a vote in the Senate.
Is this unexpected result, a week after the President’s announcement, a coincidence?
Not in my view.
The President didn’t support same sex marriage in 2008. Look at the exit polls, as I wrote today for the country’s leading political website on the 2012 election. Last time, candidate Obama followed a brilliantly nuanced path and cut his expected loss among conservative, born-again and evangelical Christians – the “faith and family” base of the Southern GOP – by 5,000,000 votes when compared to John F. Kerry!
A brilliant political feat, accounting for half of his national popular vote margin!!
But in 2012, the politics has changed: and the President’s new position on same sex marriage – he is a 100% for it – has to be digested by his fellow Americans. It is still a work in progress.
The rejection of same sex marriage in North Carolina last week by a bigger than expected margin was, as I have written before, a cautionary tale for Southern Democrats.
Same sex marriage is not merely another gay rights issue: it is symbolic of a whole larger paradigm to socially conservative voters, mostly in the GOP but to some Democrats too especially in the African-American and Latino community.
The New York Times polls shows that the North Carolina vote is generally consistent with the views in the South reading between the numbers.
VA Democrats should not forget the state voted to make a ban on same sex marriage part of the Virginia Constitution, the margin significant, and like North Carolina, bigger than the polls predicted.
The bottom line:
The issue of same sex marriage specially, and gay rights generally, is not primarily a legal one even though, as a technical matter, the battle is over the state of the law.
The relative qualifications of Mr. Thorne-Bogland to be a competent jurist on the General District Court bench in Richmond was never seriously questioned, nor could it be.
Rather, he became – indeed it is hard for me to understand why anyone would think otherwise – a symbol of larger changes now occurring in Virginia and America, indeed the world.
As JFK said, life is unfair: and in this regard, Mr. Thorne-Bogland is the latest political example.
The President’s endorsement of same sex marriage has crystallized the view among social conservatives that they are under attack as never before in our politics.
Moreover, Virginia is still in the grip of certain political procedures created in the days of segregation to keep everyone “in line.”
Mr. Thorne-Borgland would have served in a court with jurisdiction only in Richmond. In that regard, the people of Richmond, had it been their sole choice, would gladly have seated someone with such widely praised legal skills on the bench. Indeed, Richmond is a strongly Democratic town, and he had the support of the city’s top Democrats in the General Assembly.
As a general rule, General Assembly lawmakers have a custom of letting local lawmakers choose local judges, thus giving them a lot of power in their respective jurisdictional areas.
But as a constitutional matter, any such judge has to be finally approved by majority votes of each branch of the General Assembly.
In this way, the old segregationist made sure those parts of the state that didn’t agree with their racial attitudes had no chance to “go rogue” as saying goes in politics.
This “fail safe” political procedure was thus invoked by the social conservative GOP representatives in the House of Delegates. I
It is also worth noting – I have tried to make this point now for over two decades – that Virginia Democrats still don’t appreciate the miracle of Doug Wilder achieving statewide office.
It wasn’t a matter of color, but the fact that he was out-front, the leader in the state’s politics against the old way of doing things.
Virginia has not been kind to those who take such out-front leadership roles on cultural changes.
Wilder is the only such person ever elected to statewide office in a two way race: Lt. Governor Henry Howell once won a three way special election.
It has always been the nature of the state since the beginning of the modern two party system 150 years ago.
So in that regard, Mr. Thorne-Borgland is another in a long line of those identified with a leadership role in fighting certain forces who got defeated.
In Virginia, it has always been easier, if not smarter, to let others do the hard work, and then you come in when the coast is clear, buying our place or getting put there by other powerful forces.
That’s a fact: and Mr. Thorne-Borgland is the last example.
Would he have made his history but for the President’s same-sex marriage announcement last week?
There is no way to know.
But this we do know: The President is seen as having drawn a line in the sand by social conservatives unlike 2008.
What happened at the General Assembly was not a coincidence.