When President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, my immediate reaction was that he’d done a courageous thing.
A few nano-seconds later, I remembered the old political rule: In an election year, smart politicians don’t do the courageous thing. They do the smart thing.
So I began asking myself: Why would President Obama take such a controversial position at the beginning of an election year?
I mean, there’s no question whatsoever that the man is smart. I’ve never bought the standard liberal assumption that he’s incredibly brilliant. Brilliant people usually have vision, and I haven’t seen much evidence of vision over the past four years.
On the other hand, you can’t deny Mr. Obama’s political genius. America’s first black president – a generation or two before most folks would have thought that possible.
The man’s no dummy.
But here’s the President endorsing same-sex marriage, outraging a considerable fraction of the African-American clergy – a key element of his 2008 coalition.
What was he thinking?
There’s a hypothesis that the President had studied his polling and discovered that he’d win more votes than he’d lose by supporting same-sex marriage. Or at least, that he’d win more votes in the six or seven battleground states – including Virginia – which will determine the outcome in the Electoral College.
Perhaps there’s something to that. Opposition to same-sex marriage is dwindling rapidly, with more Americans now in favor than opposed. (An in-depth survey by the Pew Center, published in April, has the gap at 47 percent - 43 percent.)
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s stand seems likely to stimulate enthusiasm among younger voters, whose energetic support in 2008 proved a key to his victory. Those under-30 voters are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality.
It might even be that the sort of deep polling done by campaigns has indicated that America’s present wave of religious enthusiasm is beginning to wind down. Since Colonial times, America has experienced a “great awakening” every so often, generally between fifty and eighty years apart.
These waves have inevitably been followed by periods of interest in more worldly matters.
Our present, politicized “great awakening” has been going on since the early 1970’s, providing a great deal of energetic support to conservative candidates.
Perhaps there’s evidence that this wave is finally heading back out to sea.
And yet. And yet...
In politics, you have to think long-term. Even if Mr. Obama wins in November, he will have a hard time enacting the sort of progressive agenda he certainly wants as his historic legacy. The economy is still misfiring like an old jalopy. That will hamper him. Even if the Republicans lose the House, which seems likely, they’ll have enough votes in the Senate to block anything the President wants to pass.
But what if Mr. Obama runs on a boldly progressive platform and loses?
Is that the end of the story?
Follow me here: If Mr. Obama loses in November, the bad economy will become President Romney’s problem. And the simple fact is, unless Mr. Romney undergoes yet another transformation, he will have absolutely nothing in his toolbox with which to fix it.
Certainly, the Republicans in Congress won’t.
Those guys actually believe, against the evidence of history and a century of sound economic theory, that they can bring about a recovery by cutting government spending, cutting taxes and waiting.
Herbert Hoover tried that, and sent us deeply into the Great Depression.
Lately, Germany’s Angela Merkel has been trying the same thing on Europe’s periphery, nearly causing the European Union to melt down.
The truth is, John Maynard Keynes had it right nearly a century ago. In a severe recession or depression, the best way out is for government to spend money in order to stimulate economic activity.
That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s what works.
But the Republicans refuse to believe that. If they win power in November, and follow the policies they’ve been preaching for the past four years, this recession will drag on and on.
And if that happens, both houses of Congress will go heavily Democratic in the off-year Congressional elections of 2014.
And the White House will, very likely, go to a Democrat in 2016.
And perhaps that Democrat will be a still-youthful Barack Obama, now older and more experienced. Now empowered by four more years of that demographic shift. Now with progressive Congressional majorities that will allow him to enact the sort of sweeping policy initiatives he couldn’t enact in his first term.
Call it the Cleveland Strategy – for Grover Cleveland, our 22nd and 24th President. A Democrat who served two non-consecutive terms in the late 19th century.
What worked for Number 22 might work for Number 44.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Mr. Obama wants to win in November. But I’m starting to wonder if he hasn’t figured out a bold strategy which makes him a winner either way.