The extent of intra-party squabbling has likewise remained notably high this election season. Many Democrats and Cruz-opposers alike (yes, myself included) enjoyed Boehner's calling Ted Cruz "Lucifer in the Flesh" and Lindsay Graham's pointed comment, "If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you." For the record, that was not a private joke made dangerously close to a hot mic. That was at the Washington Press Club Foundation's Congressional Dinner. Not your garden variety dinnertime fodder. As a partisan, one's initial response might be simply surprise that one would publicly speak that way of a member of one's own party, though a bigger point of surprise should have been to publicly speak that way of one's colleague. I admit that historically I have been more interested in winning than on focusing on the tenor of campaigns -- probably an artifact of having been exposed only to elections of recent decades and thus having ingrained in me a certain level of acceptance of the nastiness that seems invariably to accompany life in politics -- and even I have been at times caught off guard this year.
The simple truth is that we have become desensitized, or at least exposed to so such vitriol that we have become cynical. Politics no longer appears to be a game of strategic compromise to work toward policy solutions for large swaths of the American public, some of them catering more toward some worldviews than do others but which are not necessarily in themselves nefarious. I make no secret of my Democratic Party affiliation, though I have friends who believe in smaller government and investment in businesses and states that can provide benefits that better suits their goals and preferences. I respectfully disagree, and we move on to other topics of conversation. Respectful disagreement, however, is hard to find in the Republican Party's presumptive nominee, and is difficult to expect when that individual routinely refers to the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee as "crooked," among (many) other things.
This election season has also brought about not simply vitriolic rhetoric, but also wedge issues that invariably divide Americans rather than stimulating potentially productive discussions about balancing competing priorities of delivering health care while controlling health care costs; protecting American industry while also reducing our contribution to climate change; investing in public education; investing in benefits for Americans without raising tax burdens too much; and the like. One can scarcely read the news without reading of state legislation on transgender bathrooms, with North Carolina instigating much of this discussion with its prohibition against transgender individuals' use of public restrooms matching their gender identity and its prohibition against cities passing their own antidiscrimination ordinances that would protect the LGBT community.
On May 13, the Obama Administration's Department of Education and Department of Justice Department issued a directive that schools "must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity," with the additional directive of provision to transgender students of equal access to educational programs and activities regardless of student, parent, or community objections, given the need to not disadvantage certain students. Included in this directive was the policy that public school districts allow transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity as opposed to requiring that they use those facilities matching the gender that they were assigned at birth. To be clear, this directive came in the form of administrative guidance rather than rules, and thus does not carry the force of law, though eleven states -- Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and others -- have now signed on to challenge the Obama Administration's stated policy on this matter.
Admittedly, as a heterosexual woman, this is not something that I have personally had to think about, and I find myself surprised by the preoccupation that some on the right have had with thinking at such great lengths about the restrooms that people may or may not go to. In his segment on transgender rights, John Oliver rightly pointed out that a gender identity-based conception of restroom use is already essentially what we do, with pictures on doors being stereotypical representations of how men and women dress and appear, as opposed to being biologically-based depictions of the male and female reproductive systems. And with rising underinsurance, persistent problems of untreated mental illness and obesity and diabetes, climate change, reproductive rights, and the Supreme Court, it would seem to me that regulating where people deal with bodily functions should rank low on the list of priorities. Of course, that isn't what this battle is about. It is about defining an "other," thus inherently creating a division where there needn't be one, and preying on ill-founded fears one may have of their young daughter using the same restroom as a transgender woman (who knows what could happen?).
The regulation of sex is yet another area in which some have made the mystifying case that we must talk about in election seasons. For a party that discusses at such length the merits of small government, it seems quite keen on shrinking government to the point of being just small enough to fit in someone's bedroom. Outside of the occasional appeal for advice, I and most of those whom I know do not solicit or provide unsolicited lurid details of sexual encounters. "May it be consensual, fun, safe, fulfilling, and your business" seems like a generally reasonable, healthy, and not-too-prudish way to think about sex, and yet in February 2016, the Michigan Senate passed legislation that reaffirmed the state's prohibition of sodomy, which would be a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. And despite the Supreme Court holding in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional, a dozen states continue to keep them. Setting aside the obvious logistical difficulty of enforcement (as well as the fact that its enforcement would also outlaw behavior also prevalent between heterosexuals), the continued regulation of sexual behavior between consenting adults is troubling in its persistence in the year 2016.
The more amusingly trivial discussion of sex and machismo came in the dialogues between Rubio and Trump over the size of Trump's hands and the implication that he might have a small penis, which must naturally be correlated well with the ability to effectively run a country. The interplay culminated in Trump defending during a presidential debate the size of his hands as well as the size of his "hands." On the one hand, for a presidential candidate to talk about his penis during a presidential debate is quite shocking, both in its inappropriateness and its irrelevance. On the other hand, the macho nature of his campaign -- from the blanket insults to the aggressive policies to the accusations of playing the woman card -- almost makes it fitting.
One of Trump's more recent strategies has been to attack Hillary Clinton for allowing her husband, President Bill Clinton, to be unfaithful and to have stayed with him despite his infidelity. To rehash the Lewinsky scandal is admittedly not the dream scenario for any Democrat, Clinton supporter or not, though the fact of the matter is that where Bill put his cigars or from whom he received oral sex did not change the fact that he turned the nation from a recession to a surplus with a balanced budget. And while he did engage in more deregulation than some on those on the left would like (see, e.g., the Telecommunications Act of 1996), he created more jobs than did Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush combined. It is perhaps for these reasons that Clinton's approval ratings remained high even throughout the Lewinsky scandal, with his average job approval rating from 1993-1999 being 53.8, with a mean approval rating of 63.8 in 1998, which was the year in which the affair became public knowledge. Indeed, his approval rating in the first quarter of 1998 was 5.6 points higher than that in the fourth quarter of 1997. What's more, as of February 2016, CNN polling showed his favorables being 56% compared to only 38% unfavorables (CBS estimates of favorables were lower at 45%, Bloomberg's and Gallup's slightly higher at 58% and 59% respectively, and ABC/Washington Post comparable at 53%). Bottom line, whether people are voting enthusiastically or begrudgingly for Hillary, Americans still really like Bill.
Moreover, setting aside the notion of blaming a woman for her husband's infidelity, not to mention the notion of doing so at the expense of talking about the substantive issues affecting everyday Americans, a family values argument might in fact be that she preserved her marriage and her family rather than walking away from her marital challenges and getting divorced. If preserving the notion of the American family is indeed what "family values conservatives" seek to defend, they should be consistent in that stance as applied to both the left and the right. Conservatism is acceptable in a pluralistic society such as ours. Hypocrisy should not be.
In one of my favorite films, The American President (my "gateway drug" to all that is Aaron Sorkin), President Andrew Shepherd tells his chief of staff A.J. on the subject of his new girlfriend, "This is NOT the business of the American people!" to which A.J. responds, "With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business." Sadly, this is true, particularly in the era of 24/7 media attention on everything from profound to the most banal and trivial. But politicians can and should play a role in this by not perpetuating discussions about marginal issues that divide us unnecessarily when rather than emphasizing sodomy or infidelity or Clinton's emails, the most important issue to Gallup's recent survey respondents was the economy (dare I say, "it's the economy, stupid"). For the sake of the nation and its voters, let's keep our eye on the ball.