Lessons from NY state

Part of what made Daniel Patrick Moynihan a great leader (and a great New Yorker) was his ability to “see around the corner,” using those insights to push for change. Last week in New York state, the Legislature recognized it only needed to look down the block to embrace inevitable change and expand the fundamental right to marry to every New Yorker. There are some important takeaways for our leaders here in Washington as they resume debt talks entrenched in their respective corners, even wary of the diverse opinions within each caucus.

While it was by no means easy, the effort in New York illustrated successful, effective bipartisanship, led by a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor. The issue was framed around, and balanced between, shared American values of civil rights and religious freedom, not political ideology. Both sides used their political power wisely, engaging grassroots supporters, donors and the business community, all of which put aside significant differences to support the measure. Working with Democrats and his caucus, Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos worked the politics to protect vulnerable members. 

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Perhaps most importantly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had skin in the game, applied lessons learned from 2009, when the measure failed, and risked both his political capital and popularity to make it happen.

As usual, it was really the people who led our leaders on the issue. Between 2004 and 2011, support for same-sex marriage in New York state rose from 37 percent to 58. Earlier this year, Pew reported broad changes in attitudes; in just the last year, the number of people who support same-sex marriage increased from 37 percent to 42. Among independents, support has increased from 37 to 44 percent, while in the Midwest support has increased from 36 percent to 44. And while African-Americans continue to oppose same-sex marriage, there has been an increase in support, with 30 percent of blacks supporting and 59 percent opposed; up from 28 percent and 62 percent, respectively, in 2009. 

These changes won’t likely reverse anytime soon. As the Public Religion Research Institute found, the millennial generation — the more diverse, tolerant generation that will lead our country — support same-sex marriage by 57 percent, consistent with a recent Pew study showing that 64 percent of millennials are supportive, versus 46 percent of Generation X and 37 percent of baby boomers.

America has a unique ability to change for the better with each generation. Consider the recent anniversary of Loving v. Virginia as an example. According to a Gallup poll taken a year after the landmark 1968 decision, only 20 percent of Americans supported interracial marriage, with 73 percent opposed. According to Pew, today only 9 percent of Americans believe it is a bad thing for society and 79 percent say it is either a good thing or doesn’t matter. 

In poll after poll, American voters are increasingly frustrated with political leaders who are out of touch, unable to find ways to work together to embrace and deal with the change happening all around us. The victory in New York state should serve as a reminder that politicians risk becoming irrelevant if they continue to ignore the cultural and economic changes we face; and that America can still do big things — but big things require a team effort.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.