While progress was made during the last 12 months, we have definitely endured several seasons of contradictions in American politics.
The Supreme Court delivered a huge victory for equality, and it also continued its trajectory of becoming an unofficial arm of the Chamber of Commerce. The Roberts Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act will be remembered as one of the most singularly ill-conceived, regressive findings in the Court’s recent history, given the right’s lunge to implement laws designed to suppress the vote in states with large African-American populations.
Congress hardly did anything beyond keeping the government’s lights on. And they barely even did that during the 16-day shutdown in October.
The president saw hopes of comprehensive immigration reform and gun safety legislation replaced with having to react to a series of outrages that have practically drowned out any notice that we’ve enjoyed the best year of job growth in nearly a decade.
Some outrages — Benghazi and the IRS’ targeting of political groups — were completely hyped up or manufactured by the right. Others — NSA surveillance and the failed launch of HealthCare.gov — suggested that the White House was so caught up in fending off right-wing criticism and unprecedented sabotage that it had failed to respect the pledges of open, competent liberal governance that ran throughout President Obama’s campaign rhetoric.
Despite all this, there were definitely events worth celebrating in 2013 that should give us hope for 2014.
Photo: Anthony Quintano via Flickr
Same-Sex Marriage Received Federal Recognition
The march of LGBT rights under President Obama has been steady and undeniable.
The decision to extend benefits to the partners of same-sex couples was followed by an executive order banning discrimination based on gender identity in federal workplaces and the end of the ban on people with HIV/AIDS entering the United States. Then in December of 2010, the president signed the repeal of the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The compromises of the ’90s that delayed equality for decades were falling fast, replaced by policies that the gay rights movement fought for and demanded. As President Obama was re-elected, same-sex marriage was approved for the first time by voters, as the first openly gay American was elected to the U.S. Senate.
But the most profound victory for the movement came as a result of a decision from the far-right Roberts Court. In United States v. Windsor, the majority found that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and struck it down.
This did not legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, but LGBT couples married in states where it had been legalized were immediately granted all the federal rights of marriage. The administration followed up this decision by moving to treat immigrant and military gay couples the same as straight couples regardless of which state they reside in, even when it comes to Social Security benefits.
We Avoided A Dumb Military Action In Syria
President Obama ran for president saying that he wasn’t opposed to war, he was opposed to dumb wars — like Iraq.
In September of 2013, much of America felt as if it were headed into another dumb war in the Middle East. There was no doubt that the civil war in Syria was a catastrophe and an ongoing human rights disaster, but the majority of Americans were not with the president as he considered strikes against the regime as punishment for breaching the “red line” of chemical weapons use that he had established. Instead of acting unilaterally, Obama went to Congress for approval. The Republican desire to oppose whatever the president wanted was emboldened by a small but vocal anti-war wing of the party that had been completely ignored during the Bush administration.
Despite the failure to win approval for the strike, it still seemed as if the president might be considering action on his own. He even scheduled a primetime address to make his case to the nation. Before he could speak, Russia responded to what appeared to be an offhand comment from Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the only way to avoid a strike was for Syria to give up all its nuclear weapons. Led by President Vladimir Putin, negotiations began, and all of the known weapons are now on track to be destroyed.
This is by no means a complete success for America. The savagery of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, who has wantonly massacred his own people, is still unchecked. But a public wary of war and its unintended consequences swayed a president elected to avoid dumb wars into using diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could have conceivably spiraled into another Iraq.
And a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran, and some progress toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, suggest that 2014 could be a breakthrough year for peace in a region constantly on the verge of being engulfed in war.
AFP Photo/Tauseef Mustafa
Republican Governors Fought To Expand Medicaid
Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ) will probably go down in history as the Tea Partier who publicly scolded the president on the tarmac for opposing her state’s aggressive — and partially unconstitutional — anti-immigration law.
But her most heroic action was forcing her state to expand Medicaid.
Brewer refused to sign any bills until her legislature expanded the government’s subsidized health insurance program for those who earn up to 133 percent of the poverty level. She refused to turn down the federal government’s offer to fund 100 percent of the program for three years, tapering down to 90 percent thereafter — even though her state was the very last to accept Medicaid itself in 1982, 17 years after it became law.
Governors John Kasich (R-OH) and Rick Synder (R-MI) also took on their own parties to force expansion, while in other states that President Obama won (including Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico), Republican governors simply went along with their Democratic legislatures and accepted the federal money that creates jobs and protects rural hospitals.
In a party that literally shut down the federal government to try to sabotage Obamacare, this pragmatic no-brainer of a choice became a profile in courage.
The Tea Party Was Exposed
Republicans are engaged in a great debate. Was it the establishment or the Tea Party that cost them the U.S. Senate, which they had an excellent chance of winning in both 2010 and 2012? For every Tea Party Sharron Angle, there is an establishment Tommy Thompson who lost a winnable seat.
As 2014 approaches, the Tea Party is in open revolt. Both Republican leaders in the Senate are facing primary challenges along with about a half-dozen other incumbents. The only problem is that most, if not all, of these challengers are losing.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) followed Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) into a government shutdown. But Boehner quickly folded when the debt ceiling was about to be reached. With newfound courage, the Speaker is now openly attacking the outside groups that embraced the shutdown strategy. And his members are going right along with him.
The budget deal Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) negotiated on Boehner’s behalf was opposed by those same groups, and it easily passed the House and Senate. And though the compromise will face a bigger challenge as the actual numbers are worked out, it seems the Tea Party made the mistake of putting all its cards on the table. It seems they had a pair, and that’s about it.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Elizabeth Warren Joined The Senate
Senate Republicans did not want Elizabeth Warren to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
So they got her as a colleague instead.
As a freshman, she’s become a powerful voice for progressivism, pushing arguments to the left by proposing things like letting students borrow money at the same rates banks get, banning discriminatory pre-employment credit checks and actually forcing the banks that break the law to admit they’ve done so.
Though she’s stood with the president on nearly every vote that’s counted, she hasn’t been afraid to publicly denounce any attempt to curtail Social Security benefits. And now she’s even calling for those benefits to be expanded.
Some speculate that she will run for president in 2016, which the senator denies. But as Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said in 2009, the banks “own” the upper house of Congress. If that’s ever going to change, we need Elizabeth Warren and 50 senators who will fight with her in the U.S. Senate.