The gay marriage debate nears its conclusion.
ONE DAY IN MAY, virtually every political reporter in America- or so it seemed-sat intently waiting for President Barack Obama to confirm his opinion on a subject where most of them assumed his mind was already made up. Obama had previously expressed what the Windy City Times described as “unequivocal support for gay marriage” all the way back in 1996. As a candidate for the Illinois state senate, Obama told the Outlines newspaper, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
“If you actually go back and look, that questionnaire was actually filled out by someone else, not the president,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer later explained. While the media was more accepting of this disavowal than authorship questions concerning the Ron Paul newsletters, that didn’t end speculation that Obama really supported same-sex marriage. His oft-stated belief that marriage was between a man and a woman seemed limited to campaign pronouncements, utterly devoid of substance.
After all, there is no record of Obama voicing support for any state ballot initiatives attempting to codify the definition of marriage in which he professed to believe. His administration withdrew support for the bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act, Declaring it discriminatory and unconstitutional. He opposed the federal marriage amendment and comparable legislation. If Obama was really against same-sex marriage, he had a funny way of showing it. And he probably would have been the only person in America who was for gay marriage in 1996 but against it at the beginning of 2012.
So after a little bit of prodding from Vice President Joe Biden, who went off-message on marriage during a Sunday talk show appearance, Obama finally came out to ABC News. Following some throat-clearing too lengthy to reproduce here, Obama declared, “at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
The phrasing was awfully equivocal and the timing suspicious. Obama waited to make this announcement until after North Carolina-a state he carried in 2008 and the site of this year’s Democratic national convention-had voted to reject same-sex marriage. But conveniently, he managed to grant this interview the day before he was due to appear at a Hollywood left fundraiser at the home of George Clooney. Obama allowed that he thought the issue should still be left up to the states, leaving the door open to ballot initiatives like North Carolina’s.
Yet the hosannas came. Joan Walsh enthused in Salon, “Make no mistake: President Obama’s decision to publicly endorse gay marriage carries serious political risk, though also moral reward.” Note the word “publicly.” Walsh concluded that the president “must be relieved to be able to say publicly what we’ve known he’s believed privately for a long time.”
ANY TIME A SITTING PRESIDENT of the United States endorses a social cause for the first time, however tepidly, that cause undeniably benefits. John F. Kennedy was a very lukewarm supporter of the civil rights movement, but his statements on its behalf of equal rights are more remembered today than his failure to get legislation enacted. In Congress, Lyndon Johnson had frequently sided with the Democratic Party’s Southern racist wing before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Supporters of same-sex marriage and gay rights more generally see their cause in the same moral terms as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s.
In many respects, however, Obama is simply ratifying a change in public opinion that was already happening without him. Back when people were filling out his questionnaires in 1996, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while only 27 percent supported it. It was not yet a partisan issue. When the Defense of Marriage Act passed that year by votes of 342 to 67 in the House and 85 to 14 in the Senate, every Republican except one was in favor. But so were overwhelming majorities of Democrats, who backed the bill 188 to 65 in the House and 32 to 14 in the Senate. President Bill Clinton promptly signed the bill into law. He denounced the legislation as “gay-baiting” but also ran radio ads claiming credit for it on Christian stations during his reelection campaign.
“I remain opposed to same-sex marriage,” Clinton told the Advocate in June 1996. “I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered.” Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, then the most liberal member of the upper chamber, opposed same-sex marriage. So did Walter Fauntroy, the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus who would go on to march with Al Sharpton in protest of George W. Bush’s election in 2000. John Kerry opposed gay marriage. As late as 2008, the three main Democratic presidential candidates- Obama, Hillary Clinton, and that noted defender of marriage John Edwards-all said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
But by 2007, support for same-sex marriage had risen all the way to 46 percent. (It has since fluctuated.) In May 2011, a year before Obama’s evolution on the issue was complete, Gallup for the first time found a majority-53 percent-in favor of gay marriage. Support was especially strong among the young. In just a single year, the share of Americans aged 18 to 34 saying same-sex marriage “should be legal” exploded from 53 percent to 70 percent. “More broadly,” pollster Frank Newport wrote, “support is highest among younger women and lowest among older men.”
It’s possible that young people will begin to hold more socially conservative views once they are married and have children themselves. But this trend in favor of same-sex marriage has proved remarkably durable, and there is no evidence to suggest past supporters of gay marriage are becoming opponents over time. At the very least, support for a unisex definition of marriage is now a perfectly mainstream Democratic position; Obama and Biden were simply lagging indicators (leading once again from behind.)
IF OBAMA DID ANYTHING to accelerate rather than simply follow the trend toward gay marriage, it may be among black voters. According to the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, black support for North Carolina’s pro-traditional marriage Amendment One-once a 59 percent majority-fell 11 points after Obama’s flip-flop. (All the more reason gay rights activists should be angry that Obama didn’t make his announcement before the Tarheel State vote.) The pollsters found an even more dramatic shift in Maryland, where 56 percent of blacks had planned to vote against gay marriage this November, but now 55 percent say they will vote for it. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that black support for gay marriage nationally spiked 18 points, from 41 percent all the way up to 59 percent. The NAACP has also since endorsed gay marriage.
Of course, the pollsters may be understating black opposition to same-sex marriage. According to exit polls, 70 percent of African-American voters supported California’s Proposition 8, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, in 2008, while 77 percent backed a similar ballot initiative in Mississippi in 2004. Majority-black counties in North Carolina generally voted for Amendment One by larger margins than Public Policy Polling’s surveys of black voters would suggest, and in some cases by bigger margins than they went for Obama. Black opposition was a major reason for Obama’s reluctance to change his position.
The polls may also understate opposition to samesex marriage more generally. In all 32 states where the issue has been on the ballot, voters have agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman. (Arizona rejected one amendment as too broadly worded, but easily passed a revised version the second time around.) In the six states that have redefined marriage to include same-sex couples, every effort has been made to avoid any popular vote. Whether gay marriage is approved by unelected judges or democratic state legislatures, voters have overturned it when given the opportunity.
Most of these votes took place between 2004 and 2008, when public opposition to same-sex marriage was higher. The margins have also declined: 61 percent of Californians voted for pro-traditional marriage Proposition 22 in 2000-the same percentage as North Carolina’s defense-of-marriage vote this year-compared to just 52 percent for Proposition 8 eight years later. Maine exercised its “People’s Veto” of same-sex matrimony in 2009 with a 52 percent majority. So far, the final result has always been the same. Gay marriage will be on the ballot in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state this November.
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H/T to National Review Online