Frank Rich on the National Circus: Gay Marriage Triumphs, Roberts Be Damned

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: SCOTUS defeats DOMA, the Voting Rights Act suffers a mortal wound, and Obama fights back on climate change.

The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act this morning, while dismissing the case over California’s Prop 8. The result is that same-sex marriages will now resume in California and married gay couples everywhere can receive federal marriage benefits. How important are these decisions? And what lies ahead for the gay-rights movement?
The DOMA decision is momentous, broad, and moving, sending to a just oblivion one of the most bigoted laws in the country’s history, one that Bill Clinton never should have signed in the first place. President Obama’s legal decision to halt the Justice Department’s defense of DOMA will prove an important historical marker for him and the country. The narrow Prop 8 decision was largely viewed as inevitable, but the resumption of same-sex marriage in California, the biggest state, will have a snowball effect elsewhere, politically and with time legally, and I have little doubt that marriage will continue on a generally fast track as a national proposition. Though most Republicans and most Republican politicians still oppose gay marriage (among other gay rights), the conservative commentators Doug Mataconis and Josh Barro both noted last week that the right has increasingly grown silent on the issue; everyone knows it’s a loser for the GOP if it wants voters under Social Security age. But let us not forget that were it not for the expected swing vote of Anthony Kennedy, the court’s conservative contingent would have upheld DOMA. I had thought Roberts might be movable, too, if only because he seems to care about being on the right side of history (e.g., his Obamacare decision), but I was wrong. The Roberts Court continues doing everything it can to permit the abridgment of the rights of minorities even as it strengthens the rights of corporations. It turns out that John Roberts’s famous laissez-faire mantra about racial animus also sums up his views about homophobia: “The way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This will be his epitaph, and not in a good way.

So how big a setback is yesterday’s Court decision — the striking down of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act — for civil rights in this country? And how will it play out politically?
In the short — even the immediate — term, it is a real setback. To take just one example: The Texas voter photo-I.D. law, blocked by a federal court last year, will now go immediately into effect, potentially disenfranchising 800,000 voters, according to the best-versed analyst on voting-rights issues, Ari Berman of The Nation. But the long-term effect of the Court’s action, largely because of its political fallout, could be an anti-Republican backlash at the polls. As Chief Justice Roberts himself wrote in yesterday’s decision, in the 2012 election, “African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered” by the law. Why? Because the GOP was engaged in a nationwide voter-suppression effort last year, and outraged black voters were highly motivated to vote no matter how long the lines or other hoops they had to jump through. Now that the Court has given state and local jurisdictions a green light to pursue even more egregious voter-suppression efforts, it has also given the right a gun with which to shoot itself. Outraged Hispanic and Asian voters may well join black voters in both political activism and stepped-up Election Day turnout to counter a lily-white party’s last-ditch efforts to use anti-democratic stunts to thwart the tidal wave of demographic change that threatens it. 

President Obama has been criticized for falling well short on his environmental promises. On Tuesday, he announced he would use executive orders and the EPA to sidestep Congress and address climate change. Is this a winning issue for Obama? And can he really make a difference?
As we’ve seen from Obama’s belated but ultimately productive stand on same-sex marriage, his leadership can make a difference. I don’t think anyone believes that he can achieve more than incremental environmental goals by executive order; the legal challenges alone will long outlast his presidency. But by acknowledging that governance is impossible with the current Congress and taking action, he has catapulted over Washington to the voters and strongly identified his party and presumably its next presidential candidate with policies that are in sharp contrast with what he calls the “Flat Earth Society” on the other side. And clearly that stings the right: The knee-jerk howls that regulating fossil fuels is a “job killer” and “a war on coal” are really tired. (Yes, the Democrats will lose West Virginia for a generation, but what else is new?) As with gay civil rights and immigration reform (some of it also by executive fiat), Obama has put his party firmly on the side of the country’s future, not its past. And by supporting nuclear power and (hazily) suggesting there are circumstances under which he could tolerate the Keystone pipeline, he is insulating himself from charges that he’s an uncompromising greenik.

On SundayMeet the Press host David Gregory all but accused the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald of aiding and abetting Edward Snowden’s fugitive travels, asking, “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Was Gregory over the line? And, speaking to his larger point, do you see Greenwald as a journalist or an activist in this episode? And does it matter?
Is David Gregory a journalist? As a thought experiment, name one piece of news he has broken, one beat he’s covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he’s conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, or Chuck Schumer. Meet the Press has fallen behind CBS’s Face the Nation, much as Today has fallen to ABC’s Good Morning America, and my guess is that Gregory didn’t mean to sound like Joe McCarthy (with a splash of the oiliness of Roy Cohn) but was only playing the part to make some noise. In any case, his charge is preposterous. As a columnist who published Edward Snowden’s leaks, Greenwald was doing the job of a journalist — and the fact that he’s an “activist” journalist (i.e., an opinion journalist, like me and a zillion others) is irrelevant to that journalistic function. If Gregory had integrity and guts, he would have added that the journalist Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, who published the other set of Snowden leaks (and arguably more important ones), aided and abetted a crime. But it’s easier for Gregory to go after Greenwald, a self-professed outsider who is not likely to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and works for a news organization based in London. Presumably if Gregory had been around 40 years ago, he also would have accused the Times of aiding and abetting the enemy when it published Daniel Ellsberg’s massive leak of the Pentagon Papers. In any case, Greenwald demolished Gregory on air and on Twitter (“Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?”). The new, incoming leadership of NBC News has a golden opportunity to revamp Sunday morning chat by making a change at Meet the Press. I propose that Gregory be full-time on Today, where he can speak truth to power by grilling Paula Deen.

Frank Rich: Gay Marriage Wins, Roberts Be Damned