When In Doubt, Do Right

Today the President of the United States explicitly endorsed the idea that gay couples and their families should have the freedom to marry.  He had already done so as a practical matter by refusing to defend the constitutionality of what he carefully mislabelled the “Defense Against Marriage Act” and by publicly opposing state constitutional amendments against marriage.  But in the past he had said he personally opposed gay marriage because “God is in the mix.”  Jon Rauch has some thoughts about the Obama evolution toward support:

What happened? Harry Truman was fond of quoting Mark Twain: “When in doubt, do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Now and then, politicians have a “goddammit” moment. Obama’s position had clearly shifted on the issue (who was he kidding with his talk of having “evolved” but being unwilling to make news?), and there was never going to be a better time to make the switch than now–at least not while he is certain to be a non-lame-duck president.

So Obama decided it’s worth a roll of the dice to make history. Which is what he has done.

As of his announcement, favoring gay marriage is now fully, indisputably, and permanently a mainstream political position. All hint of weirdness or stigma is gone. It is also now the stated position of one of the two major political parties (only 16 years after President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed the anti-gay-marriage Defense of Marriage Act). Precisely because the issue is unlikely to decide the election this year, November’s result will not revoke the issue’s promotion in status even if Obama loses. Though gay couples have not achieved full legal equality, gay marriage, as an issue, has achieved full political equality. That is a landmark in the ongoing marriage debate.

Rauch goes on to speculate that Obama’s statement might influence the Justices should the Prop 8 case or DOMA litigation reach them.  That’s possible, but I’m dubious. This Supreme Court has not been shy about disagreeing with the Executive Branch.  For goodness’ sake, Justice Alito delivered a visual advisory opinion to him during the State of the Union speech days after the Citizens United decision. I think they’ll decide the issue independently of what President Obama, or President Romney, personally thinks about it. The bigger constitutional landmark was the Obama Justice Department’s conclusion that DOMA is unconstitutional because it cannot meet the heightened scrutiny that the DOJ argued is applicable to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The rest of what Rauch says, however, seems spot on to me.  It’s easy to be cynical about everything politicians do, and I yield to few people in my skepticism of officeholders.  I spoke to many Minnesota lawmakers last year who voted to place an anti-gay marriage limitation on the ballot, yet privately expressed their misgivings about it. President Obama himself has a tortured public history on the issue, moving from support when he ran for state office in 1996, to opposition when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and president in 2008, to support now.  It’s obvious that he privately supported gay marriage for years, so his evolution was for public consumption.

Nevertheless, watching him closely on TV, I had a hard time mustering cynicism about the president’s words.  He must know his public support is not obviously a net political plus for him in November.  And his description today of his discussions with his family, his experience of talking to young adults (including young Republicans) for whom opposition to gay marriage is baffling, and his understanding of the hardships faced by gay families, including those headed by openly gay servicemembers, seemed genuine.  His words echoed the conclusions now reached by about half of the American people.  On this issue, as on others, the president may be leading from behind.  But it matters when presidents lead, as when Lyndon Johnson declared civil rights a “moral issue” and announced on national television, “We shall overcome.”  The president’s endorsement won’t matter to people who’ve made up their minds to oppose marriage for gay couples, but many others are listening.