The Stance on Gay Marriage: Why Backpedalling is Not the Answer
Last night, voters in North Carolina passed, by an over 20-point margin, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The result is obviously disheartening, particularly because of the margin and because of the breadth of the amendment. The stakes of last night’s election were eloquently detailed last week in Construction by Ben Hoffman.
Also disheartening has been the White House’s response to gay marriage returning to the forefront of the national debate. President Obama has long been of the position that he does not support full marriage equality, but claims that his views on the issue are “evolving.” Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Vice-President Biden declared himself “absolutely comfortable“ with gay marriage. Some took this as a sign that the evolution was complete, and the President was prepared to come out in full support of marriage equality. Not so fast. Still evolving. Indeed, the Obama campaign and Biden’s office have attempted to walk back the vice-president’s comments, claiming that they are consistent with the president’s position and that Biden also is evolving. Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted that all Biden was saying is that he, like the president, believes that “all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights.” Basically, the White House is taking the bold stance that if gay people are allowed to marry (which we’re not saying they should!), then they should have the rights of married people.
The president has been roundly criticized in progressive circles for his weak stance on marriage equality, but it’s worth piling on. This should not be sugarcoated: the president’s position on marriage equality is a cheap, disingenuous bit of political calculation. Of course we should expect and want politicians to be open to reevaluating their positions. But we should also be deeply skeptical of any politician whose views on an issue are “evolving” in the same direction and at roughly the same pace as national polling.
The dilemma for President Obama is that he wants to be seen as a transformational figure in American history but also wants to be re-elected. He knows as well as anyone that gay marriage is on the path to being legal in most if not all of the country. Even the results in North Carolina show some reason for hope: exit polling shows that younger voters opposed the amendment. But, of course, last night’s results also show that much of the country is not there yet. The tipping point for marriage equality—whether at the polls or in the courts—could very well come in the next four years. President Obama does not want to be remembered as being one of the last voices in opposition as gay marriage gains broader acceptance, but he also doesn’t want to watch it happen from his living room in Chicago. Essentially, he has crafted a position where he doesn’t have to pay any political price for supporting gay marriage but still gets to be invited to the victory part when all is said and done.
The Obama campaign will spend the coming months savaging Romney for the way his positions on many issues, particularly abortion, have been molded to fit whatever office he was running for at a given moment. But on at least this one issue, the president has been positively Romneyesque—matching the ambivalence of the nation as a whole and leaving himself room to shift as the country shifts, all the while not alienating too much those with strong positions on either side of the issue.
I do not mean to suggest that thereIt’s Is equivalence between Romney and the President in terms of their willingness to craft positions based on political expedience. Even by the standards of politicians, Romney seems to lack core convictions. The President is just a typical politician. But he deserves harsh criticism because of the standard he set for himself to be better than a typical politician. President Obama campaigned on the promise of a less cynical brand of politics. And yet on one of the major issues of the day—an issue on which he could play a leading role in transforming how the country thinks about equality and views a class of citizens—he has taken the most craven position possible. Perhaps he has sound strategic reasons for doing so, but we were promised—and should demand—better.