President Barack Obama emerged from his ideological closet last week when he said, “Same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Obama supported same-sex marriage in 1996. He opposed same-sex marriage, however, in 2004 and 2008 and right up until Vice President Joe Biden announced that he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex nuptials on “Meet the Press” May 6. Thus, I would categorize the president’s position on same-sex marriage not as having evolved, as he claims, but as a long overdue moment of honesty.
For bonus points: This moment has spared White House press secretary Jay Carney from the contortions he had been forced to perform as he explained why the president opposed same-sex marriage but also opposed state measures to ban same-sex marriage because they “deny rights to LGBT Americans.”
Mitt Romney’s position on same-sex couples has evolved, as well. In 1994, when he was a candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Romney told the gay Log Cabin Republicans that he supported “full equality” for homosexuals. Last week, he sang a different tune when he voiced his opposition to “civil unions” that have “identical” rights as traditional marriage.
Thus, both Obama and Romney have taken positions that appeal more to their respective parties’ bases than to moderate voters.
The latest Gallup poll reports that 50 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, while 48 percent do not. But there is reason to believe that polls are not an accurate barometer, at least among voters.
Last week, North Carolina became the 30th state to ban gay marriage in its state constitution. In six states and the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is recognized, courts or legislators changed the law. But every time a state’s voters have had an opportunity to vote on same-sex marriage, they have voted to ban it, not legalize it. Voters in my very blue state of California passed a law restricting marriage to one man and one woman, with 52 percent of the vote, in 2008.
Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who is a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution, estimated that, because people lie, polls are off by a 5-point margin. Rauch sees the Obama decision as courageous but against the president’s re-election interest, as it threatens to cost Obama precious votes in key swing states.
Policywise the Obama about-face does not change much. Obama’s Department of Justice already announced that it will not defend legal challenges to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton.
Carney would not say whether the president will go to states to campaign against same-sex marriage bans. It doesn’t seem likely, however, as the president told ABC News’ Robin Roberts that he thinks the fact that “different communities are arriving at different conclusions at different times” is “a healthy process.”
GOP political strategist Rob Stutzman doesn’t think the Obama statement is “that big a deal politically,” especially because the president “obviously was pushed into it.”
Forget the politics, Rauch argued; the Obama announcement is huge culturally. Also, it contrasts well against Romney’s journey from one-time courtier of gay votes to tepid supporter of civil unions. (It’s not as if Romney looks highly principled on this issue.)
I wonder whether Obama will be able to maintain the tolerant attitude he displayed Wednesday as the presidential campaign heats up. The president told ABC that he supports same-sex marriage laws that are “respectful of religious liberty” and allow churches and faith institutions to determine their sacraments for themselves. Those were reasonable, moderate points — which fly in the face of his administration’s decision to force church-based institutions with deeply held religious objections to provide contraception as part of their employee health care plans.
If church groups can’t say no to subsidizing contraception, why would they be able to say no to same-sex couples?
Already activists are calling for the Democratic Party to move its national convention out of Charlotte to punish North Carolina for its vote against same-sex marriage. Some 26,000 people have signed a “say no to discrimination” petition that calls for Democrats to move the confab to a “state that upholds values of equality and liberty.”
Much has been written of Romney’s sojourn from gay-friendly Republican to pared-down civil-union supporter in an often craven pursuit of voters in the GOP base. The less Romney says about civil unions the better.
Obama has the opposite problem.
In coming home to his support of same-sex marriage, Obama has unleashed his like-minded base. This is the base that has tried to use the courts to force the Boy Scouts to admit gay Scout leaders and its political muscle to coerce church-based charities to provide benefits for domestic partners. Obama’s base has a name for people who (like Obama last month) believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman only. That word is “bigot.”
And those who hurl it do so in the name of tolerance.