Thursday, January 26, 2012

Backbone Missing

When the great Dan Rather closed his last newscast as anchorman of CBS News, ending it with his signature word, he stated

To our soldiers in dangerous places. To those who have endured the tsunami and to all who have suffered natural disasters, and who must find the will to rebuild. To the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle, in financial hardship or in failing health. To my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all. And to each of you: 'Courage.'

Few of us are as courageous as those soldiers, victims of a tsunami, or anyone victim of a great tragedy or willingly risking their lives in combat.     And that is especially true of Chris Christie.    The Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday

Opening a new front in the battle over same-sex marriage, Gov. Christie called Tuesday for the issue to be put to voters in November as a proposed amendment to the state constitution.

The Republican governor's proposal, which would need three-fifths approval in the Legislature to be implemented, could for the first time in U.S. history ask voters to legalize same-sex marriage via a ballot question.

Christie's announcement came at an unusually timed news conference after a town-hall meeting in central New Jersey just as Democrats in Trenton held the first hearing on their new marriage-equality bill.

That bill, Christie said for the first time, will be vetoed if it reaches his desk because he opposes changing the institution of marriage. But a ballot question would avoid such an impasse, he argued, and be a more democratic way to "overturn hundreds of years of societal and religious tradition."

"This issue is too big and too consequential not to trust the people who will be governed ultimately by any change in law or maintenance of the current law," 

Christie said, suggesting that even the civil-rights battles of the 1960s could have been avoided had the issue been put to a referendum. "So I say today, let the people decide."

The legislation is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate.    However, Christie's move makes unlikely an override of the governor's veto because it gives GOP legislators cover.

Christie's reasoning, however, did spark a heated response from black leaders in the state, who apparently have a greater knowledge of recent American history than the governor.  The ambitious and opportunistic Newark mayor, Cory Booker, remarked "I shudder to think what would have happened if the civil rights gains, heroically established by courageous lawmakers in the 1960s, were instead conveniently left up to popular votes in our 50 states." Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver explained "people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason.    They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans...."   And the chairman of the Black Issues Convention pointed out "The 1965 Voting Rights act was enacted to overcome the systemic, intentional racial suppression of the black vote. It’s certainly a lack of historical understanding about how the expanding definition of who ‘We the People’ are has happened."

Chris Christie would like to become President someday.      Having decided to forego a bid for the nomination this year and instead become a prime surrogate for Mitt Romney, he likely will run in 2013 for re-election as governor in a state in which, according to poll(s), a slight majority of the electorate favors same-sex marriage.    

If Christie's veto is, as expected, upheld, he risks a backlash in a culturally liberal/progressive state with a strong gay rights lobby.       But if voters thereafter approve same-sex marriage, there will be far less hostility toward Christie's obstruction because it will have gone for naught.    Nevertheless, he will be able to go before a conservative national Republican audience in 2016 or 2020 and not have to defend gay marriage in New Jersey, given that it would have come about through a referendum over his personal objection.

Consequently, Chris Christie's call for a referendum is a brilliant political stroke.    But far from an impulse to honor the will of the populace, it is a profile in political cowardice from a guy, who, in the words of the New York Times' Kate Zernike, "has promoted his reputation as the big, blunt-talking guy." Christie should sign the bill or veto it; if the latter, he should stand by it and not slink behind a call for a referendum.      Lack of principle is no virtue.

The New Jersey governor may be demonstrating that cowardice is convenient and courage optional when a Repub politician is big and blunt-talking.      Zernike concludes by noting  

But as Democrats ridiculed him, Mr. Christie was commanding another news conference, this one about dismantling the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a longtime goal.

A reporter noted that previous governors had the same goal. What made him think he would succeed? Mr. Christie looked exasperated in a friendly way, then smiled, and explained: “It’s me.”

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