Frank Rich on the National Circus: Could Hobby Lobby Reverse Progress on Gay Civil Rights?

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Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: more fallout from the Hobby Lobby ruling; the intractable immigration mess; and Warren G. Harding's "Jerry."

There’s already another shoe dropping from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which lets family owned corporations opt out of paying for insurance coverage for contraceptives if they have religious objections. Now religious groups have sent a letter to the president asking him to consider exempting some companies from complying with a proposed executive order to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. How great an effect is Hobby Lobby going to have?
I think we are already seeing that its impact will be long-lasting. As a matter of policy, it is rank discrimination against women, period. The “religious freedom” argument of those who want to restrict access to contraception is a fig leaf — an all too literal fig leaf, in this case — coming from an American constituency that has had a long history of fighting women’s rights whether they involve the womb or the workplace (or in this case, both). Now Hobby Lobby has opened the door for “religious freedom” to be the pretext for turning back gay civil rights. President Obama has promised an executive order that would forbid companies with federal contracts to discriminate against gays. Religious leaders like Rick Warren, who gave a benediction at Obama’s first Inauguration, are arguing that it’s okay for gays to be denied jobs (or to be forced into the closet) if “religious” companies say the Bible warrants such bigotry. And that the taxpayers should underwrite bigotry by allowing the government to award these companies federal contracts anyway. When religion — or one group’s narrow view of religion — can trump the most fundamental Constitutional principles, we see clearly what theocracy would look like.

For starters, Obama should stop dawdling and issue his executive order with no allowance for religious exemptions. The Democrats who, like Obama, were way too slow to endorse marriage equality (the Clintons, for instance) should get ahead of the curve for once and speak up now on this issue. Period. Let Rick Warren and company pursue their homophobia in the nation’s courts for all to see.

As for the politics of this, nature will take its course. After Hobby Lobby was handed down, The Wall Street Journal ran two editorials on the same day — including one attacking Justice Ginsberg’s eloquent dissent — saying that it is wrong to interpret the ruling as another front in the GOP “war on women.” Of course they were protesting too much. The blatant spectacle of an all-male judicial majority deciding this case was of a piece with those infamous all-male House hearings on contraception. As Jackie Calmes of the Times reported last week, unmarried women are a fast-growing Democratic constituency — more than twice as numerous as that more famous fast-growing voting bloc, Hispanics (56 million unmarried women vs. 25 million Hispanics voters). When these women turn out — in 2016, if not this year’s midterms — they will exact an electoral price. Mitt Romney never did extricate himself from contraception politics in the 2012 campaign, and now his party will bear the burden of a Supreme Court decision that has far more lasting implications than the 2012 firestorm surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke. With its double-edged blade slicing away at both the rights and sexual privacy of women and gays, Hobby Lobby threatens not just the victims of the ruling but the GOP’s long-term political prospects.

Yesterday President Obama requested that Congress allocate nearly $4 billion in emergency funding to address the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.'s southwestern border, where more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors — mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—have been detained crossing into the country. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry, an outspoken critic of the White House's immigration policies, refused to greet Obama at the airport in Dallas, but will sit down with him for a private meeting on the issue. The border situation is tragic and seemingly intractable. Is there any way out?
This much is certain: A meeting between Rick Perry and the president will solve absolutely nothing. Nor would have a Perry-Obama handshake on the Dallas airport tarmac. Nor will the immigration roundtable discussion that Obama is sandwiching in between fund-raising engagements in Texas today. Nor would a presidential visit to the border (which some Republicans are proposing and which Obama rightly is skipping). Nor will the president’s $3.7 billion proposal — a Band-Aid solution to the immediate migration crisis and not likely to get through Congress in any case.

Without comprehensive reform, the entire immigration system will indefinitely remain the mess it is now. And reform is dead because the bill passed by the Senate died in John Boehner’s House. Period.  The politics are complicated for the Democrats too — witness Obama careening between strict legal enforcement and his reformist ambitions — but as everyone knows, they are particularly nettlesome for the Party of No, whose xenophobic excesses make it anathema to the Hispanic voters it needs to survive.  Meanwhile, the failure to resolve the immigration standoff — year after year, and surely into the 2016 election season — remains Exhibit A in the citizenry’s sole area of bipartisan agreement: Washington is hopeless.

The country is now learning, via The New York Times Magazine, that Warren G. Harding's "intimate," "frank," and "sexually explicit" letters to his mistress will be made available to the public for the first time. How do the 29th president’s scandals stack up against our political scandals du jour?
Harding was Bill Clinton before it was cool — though as far as we know, Clinton never gave his penis the nickname “Jerry,” as Harding did. And the wholesale corruption that culminated in the Teapot Dome scandal is the template for every pay-for-play K Street and White House scandal since. Plus, a flock of mysteries, most of them bogus, trailed Harding’s short political life and untimely death in office: Was he hiding a racially mixed genealogy? Did his wife try to murder him? Did he kill himself? In the 1950s, Harding even merited a Broadway drama (The Gang’s All Here) by the same team who wrote the classic play about the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind. But the Harding industry fell on hard times after Watergate; Nixon couldn’t match him in the sex-scandal department but outstripped his record in White House criminality. To add insult to injury, John Dean ultimately would write a book trying to make a positive case for Harding’s record.

Harding has enjoyed a slight comeback in recent years thanks to his presence in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. He has also served as the butt of one of my favorite comic American novels, Robert Plunket’s My Search for Warren Hardingwhich used the unseen love letters as a trigger for high farce. Now the actuality of these letters may give Harding a new vogue. As coincidence would have it, the news of their publication arrived just as the GOP announced that it will hold its 2016 convention in Harding’s home state of Ohio. One can only hope actors with the Creative Coalition will show up in Cleveland to do a staged reading.