In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama signaled that his nominal opposition to gay marriage would one day disappear. He made it known to close readers that they shouldn't take his position on the issue too seriously.
"In years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history," he wrote. He added incoherently that "it is my obligation not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided."
He was very eager to be proven wrong. But all of his faux-candor and pained honesty in the book didn't lead him to disclose the real reason for his nominal opposition to gay marriage: He knew that he couldn't win the presidency as an open supporter of it.
Now he wonders if he can win reelection as one. It appears that he hasn't made up his mind yet, but he wants the base of his party to know that he is now on the "right side of history" even if he can't make that explicit by changing his position formally. To this end, the White House has let it be known that his view is "evolving." This is due, White House officials say implausibly, not to a safer political climate, but to his deepening moral reflection on the issue.
Exposure to the experience of seeing gay friends marry is causing him to change his mind, say White House officials. Here Obama is borrowing a page from Bill Clinton, who cited that same reason for his shift from signing the Defense of Marriage Act to endorsing gay marriage.
At Wednesday's press conference, Obama said it was a "good thing" that a definition of marriage he nominally supports had been demolished in New York. "We're moving in a direction of greater equality," he said. Other Democrats nominally opposed to gay marriage also cheered the state legislature's passage of it.
Republicans have an enormous opportunity here to cast Obama and the Democrats as the de facto party of gay marriage, but they probably won't take it. George W. Bush had used the issue against John Kerry effectively (Kerry refused to endorse efforts in Ohio and elsewhere to oppose gay marriage and this hurt him badly), but John McCain couldn't be bothered to raise the issue and one can imagine an establishment 2012 Republican nominee following the same course. Establishment Republicans say they want to reach out to Hispanic and black voters, but this never leads them to capitalize on one of the few issues where those voters have broken with the Democrats.
Obama's hesitancy to change his position formally suggests that the confident pronouncement from gay marriage supporters that the American public is ahead of the "political class" on this issue is overstated. Were that the case, Obama would change his position immediately. He is hesitating because he can see that members of the left-wing political and judicial class are still more liberal than the country on this issue. Gay marriage has passed a handful of times judicially and legislatively but never directly by the people. Referendums have failed everywhere they have been tried, and it is not even clear that a gay marriage referendum in New York would have succeeded.
Of course, if Obama escapes into the safety of a second term, his purported moral reflections on gay marriage will speed up and rapidly turn into a formal endorsement of it. And then we will hear him talk again about his "transformative" presidency and the sweeping historical changes he has bravely engineered. The spread of gay marriage in America will be cast as another glorious milestone of "progress" for his administration.
But, according to Elizabeth Abbott, writing for the Huffington Post, gay marriage isn't entirely new to history. "Powerful males" in pagan antiquity dabbled with it, she writes, as did some Native American tribes. She dredged up a quote from the Roman poet Juvenal about an aristocrat named Gracchus who had entered into a gay marriage:
Gracchus gave a dowry of 400,000 sesterces to a cornet player -- or perhaps he'd performed on a straight horn. Marriage documents were signed, felicitations offered, they sat down to a great banquet, and the new bride lay in her husband's lap.…
Father of Rome, how came such sacrilege to your Latian shepherds? How is it, Mars, that such an itch possessed your descendants? Just look at it: a man of high birth and estate is given in marriage to a man, yet you do not shake your helmet, nor strike the earth with your spear, nor complain to your father...
If we live long enough, [homosexual marriage] will happen, and happen openly; they will even want it reported in the city gazette.
In Obama's America, which is going the way of Rome, that day has come.
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