Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Fein -- Gman Adj., "Subtle, Elegant"; Gold -- Gman N./Adj., "Gold"

Per the non-actual Dan's long-delayed request....

On the last Sunday in January the non-actual Dan and I made the trip down I-95 through the Cr.Bx. Expwy. over the West Side Highway to the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, where Sen. Russell Feingold was speaking on security, civil liberties, and constitutional balance post-Daythatchangedeverything, before a standing-room audience that would (estimating conservatively), if it could, hand a whopping electoral triumph to this twice-divorced lib-ruhl Yid over every other serious 08 candidate, D or R.

Had I known that Lindsay Beyerstein had been in attendance, I bet we could have found plenty to talk about what with her interests in analytic philosophy, liberal politics, science, and (I'm guessing) blogging.

But I digress. In one of those moments that Luther Lowe inhales oxygen in order to experience, about 10 minutes before the speech began I found myself in the auditorium's men's room one urinal over from, you guessed, Feingold himself, who smiled at me and said, "old Senators' trick; always make sure you have no fluid in you before you speak." To which I responded, "that's how Strom Thurmond killed all those civil rights bills." [Thurmond actually sat in a sauna for hours to expurgate even interstitial water, so that he could filibuster for entire days without having to take a bathroom break. Oh, and he raped his servants. Good guy---Ed.]

The substance of the speech was about what you would have expected, about as eloquent as boilerplate gets, and had the added virtue of being right. The one newsworthy item from the talk is that Feingold might have AG Gonzales dead to rights in a little bit of harmless perjury before the judiciary committee. (And who wudda thunk it, the WaPo ran with the story.)

What was revelatory about the speech (at least for me; presumably Wisconsians know already) is how formidable a politician and perhaps a presidential candidate Feingold could be. Just when I thought I was doomed to throw up in my mouth a little at every asinine prostrationist reference to a pre-9/11 mindset, Feingold's come up with a bumper sticker-sized rebuttal: the president has a pre-1776 mindset. Okay, not a work of Promethean genius, but just imagine what would happen if every elected Democrat picked up the trope; why, then the not-authoritarian side in TVpundit-hack debates would have a response to the "don't ya know we're at WAR" gimmick that would be (a) devastating and (b) simple enough for the sheep (see two posts below) to get it.

So, don't I have anything critical to say? Of course I do, this isn't Hugh Hewitt and the Hindrockets. For starters, the proposition that Feingold is a formidable politician is a logical consequence of it being the case that Feingold is a formidable politician. That's not an unconditional virtue. He was asked in the Q&A period about the Defense of Marriage Act, the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment (both of which he opposed), and his general position on gay marriage.

Basically, he restated what we already knew---that he's against DOMA and FMA---and then punted. He doesn't think he needs to take a substantive position on civil marriage for homosexuals; he's fine with states deciding on their own, and doesn't believe (probably correctly, given the makeup of the Supreme Court, no matter what Stanley Kurtz and the Maggiegallagherists think) that the Full Faith and Credit Clause will nationalize Taxachussetts's wanton faggotry. To be fair, Feingold is as solidly against legislative infringement on gay people's rights as anyone in Congress, and he'll be a resolute opponent of future FMAs. But he won't, e.g., sponsor a national gay marriage bill.

Now, you may call that a politician's prudence, but you'd be wrong. His position on the cluster of gay marriage-related issues is fully consistent with the principle that animates all the rest of his policy views: uphold small-r republicanism, defend procedural justice, and on both of those points, fiat iustitia ruat coelum. I have a hunch that Feingold would not have been at the vanguard of 60s/70s civil rights legislation after the Voting Rights Act (though he certainly would have voted the right way on everything). What is essential for him is to secure the legitimacy of the political process itself, and whatever that legitimacy entails; the rest is luxury. He is highly meta-political, but largely, fascinatingly, apolitical.

Consider: Feingold is more loudly anti-death penalty than any other nationally-known politician, and was so even in those pre-Daythatchangedeverything (and pre-Lawrence) days, when being anti-death penalty was as toxic as being pro-gay is today. [Don't you miss those wonderful years when Bill Clinton was staging campaign photo-ops from the execution chamber of a retarded peniless African-American sentenced to die after receiving the best due process Arkansas had to offer, when George W. Bush was establishing himself as a man of honor and integrity and establishing Texas justice as a beacon unto the nations by rubber-stamping death sentences handed down in virtual show trials. If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you, dear reader, favor an irrevocable death penalty for the first poor black guy we can apprehend who sorta matches the police sketches?--ed.] In other words, if Feingold thought legalization of gay marriage were a pressing imperative, he'd be proposing it. He's not because he doesn't.

So his politician's straddle consists not in declining to voice his deeply entrenched belief in the necessity of gay-marriage-now! out of concern for damaging his national electability, but in passing himself off as sufficiently pro-gay marriage to a (segment of the) activist Democratic base that is itching to throw its support to the first Dem who will say, "It is my position that homosexuals should have civil marriage rights in every state without delay, and if elected I will devote considerable energy towards achieving that end."

For the sake of brevity, let's say that I'm much closer towards the gay-marriage-now position than Feingold's. However, the substantive merit of his view is bolstered by the-fact-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, viz., that full gay marriage rights are inevitable within a couple of generations. Feingold is content to let states face up to that fact at their own pace. Were it not for the contingent facts on the ground, there might well be a procedural issue, in which case Feingold would indeed be motivated to act. No one asked him the obvious follow-up (I guess less obvious to those members of the crowd -- there must have been some -- who are anti-war and disdainful of bourgeois rights): If he were president, or in some other manner was in a position to determine the policy by his own fiat, would he revoke Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell? I honestly have no idea what the answer is.

Feingold's deference to procedure and federalism on gay rights issues is, I hope to show by no accident, largely coextensive with Andrew Sullivan's. The difference is that Sullivan is not a politician, and his profession is not about defending law, but rather shaping opinion; hence Sullivan is vocally for gay marriage, Feingold isn't. But the two have the same policy view. The reason this isn't an accident is that Feingold, for all the "progressive" (at this point I have no earthly idea what that means) wunderkind adulation, is essentially a Tory. His political theory is constitutional republicanism, the feature items of his domestic agenda all have to do with subordination of government to law (which is why there is nothing erratic about his sometimes favoring regulation, sometimes disfavoring it), and his foreign policy position is classical non-interventionism except in case of emergency.

He opposed the Iraq war because he saw it as a way to siphon resources away from combatting al-Qaeda; he supported the Afghanistan war because he considered it necessary self-defense; he opposed American intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, joined in that opposition only by isolationist conservatives. It is on these last two points that I break with Feingold completely; but I would still vote for him fairly enthusiastically --- and that's even before considering the alternatives. His presidency would leave open the possibility of Rwanda-sized moral catastrophe if another bout of genocide erupts somewhere; on the other hand, it would be hard to disgrace oneself worse than Bush did in dealing with Darfur (no need to worry about it now, they're all dead). Moreover, even if Feingold's politics don't represent my ideal, they may just be the best thing for the country given what it's been through under King George. Before we can start worrying about substantive justice again --- and we're talking health care, wage-parity, retirement savings etc. now --- we have to reinstall constitutional government; without it there is no substantive progress on health care, retirement savings, etc.


At 4:49 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Thanks for the shout out- and the great post


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