The Politics of Capitulation

Capitulate: to surrender unconditionally or on stipulated terms; to give up resistance.

When it comes to surrender, just the thought of it is chilling to a political leader on the campaign trail. Campaigns are the closest thing to war most operatives and candidates will ever experience and for the majority, they approach it with the same gusto as if their lives were on-the-line—which is essentially true in their world, as success portends a future in the limelight and failure means ending up with a briefcase full of unrealized dreams and little else. So capitulating on any issue is fraught with the potential of creating a deadly spiral fueled by opponents’ ominous ads.

Surrender: to quit fighting; to stop resisting and pushing against reality.

There is another lens at which to look at surrender beyond the pale of capitulation and that is to quit fighting reality. There was no more extraordinary example of this phenomenon then President’s Obama’s announcement of his personal support for gay marriage. Finally, the highest elected official in the country had voiced an opinion that, agree or disagree, most Americans no longer find shocking. Obama had surrendered. The question that will play out during this election cycle is to whom? And at what political cost?

For those on the political right, his endorsement of gay marriage is being skewered as a play for political contributions from and increasingly affluent and active constituency in the Democratic Party and an abomination of Christian values. For those on the left, it is seen as a long overdue recognition of a fundamental civil right currently denied to millions of Americans. For both ends of the political spectrum it is a capitulation to election year politics—finally something they can agree upon!

Regardless of your political stripes, this issue will continue to rear its ugly head throughout this campaign season. Candidates up and down the ballot, and in initiatives throughout the country, citizens will be asked to weigh in. To the chagrin of Christian Conservatives this issue may not be the make-or-break it one of the Presidential race and it could certainly prove to a straw that breaks more than a few congressional campaigns. The cost will be born by those who are perceived as having fallen prey to political winds instead of standing for personal values. Although that is where so many of our political leaders, and indeed the fabric of our political leadership, have worn thin.

What if this was not capitulation, perhaps it was simply surrender? The immediate inference when an elected official states an evolving opinion or sheds new light on existing position is that he or she has capitulated—or caved into some special interest group and, unfortunately, many times this is accurate. And if we are ever going to begin mending our tattered system of governance, perhaps discerning the true intention of the official is a more apt approach to assessing the situation.

In this case, his loquacious Vice President, Joe Biden, smoked President Obama out of the Oval Office. In asserting his support for gay marriage, was the President truly revealing a position shifted, or had he simply surrendered to the reality that for most Americans the issue of gay marriage has ceased to be the lightening rod issue it once was? Was it capitulation to the gay community or was it finally a relief for him to be able to clearly articulate a long-held, albeit silent belief. Was he surrendering to politics or was he finally surrendering to himself?

In the humble opinion of this author, President Obama has long believed that gay marriage was not only inevitable that is was a deserved civil right. The capitulation for him, was in not expressing that view to appease the then-squeamish elements of the Democratic coalition and persuadable independent voters. Times have changed and more Americans are ready to allow this right to be bestowed to all couples; the winds have shifted rather than the value, the surrender is to the new reality not any particular group.

The challenge for effective political leadership is not in surrendering to the truth of one’s views; it is eliminating the practice of capitulating one’s beliefs for the sake of political expediency. While it is laudable that President Obama has finally endorsed gay marriage, how much sooner would our country have arrived at this point, if he and other leaders had espoused their real opinion?

In the end, no one is served by capitulation to politics. True leadership is about having the courage to be oneself and to stand firm in one’s beliefs regardless of the political costs. If you don’t believe this phenomenon to be accurate, just look at Governor Romney and his extensive record of capitulations to Republican Right. Years of campaigning may have won him the nomination and it will be the thing that keeps he from the Oval office.

Unfortunately, Americans are left having to select between candidates with the fewest capitulations—hopefully soon, we can vote for one without any.

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Corey McCarren

I completely agree with you. I don’t think Obama conceded for political gain, I don’t see him condoning gay marriage as a political victory. I imagine it won’t sway many people to vote for him who wouldn’t have otherwise, his hand was just forced by Biden. I’m glad it was, though.

Scott Kearby

I think it was a calculated & political move … both the before & the after.

Before 2008 the issue was too controversial & Mr. Obama did not have the political horsepower to stand on his principles and still win, so he cultivated the image that he was for traditional marriage.

After his experiences of the past four years, I think Mr. Obama has determined that the time is right to go to the other position and that it will increase his support and allow him to paint his opponent as mean and hateful.