By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A great day for America, but with political implications

Was it partly political? Of course. As Jay Rosen tweeted, “I’m old enough to understand that a president who is with you only when the polling supports it is the best you are ever going to get.”

[blackbirdpie url=”!/jayrosen_nyu/status/200314172389601280″]

So perhaps the most remarkable aspect of President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage was that he clearly saw it as good politics.

There are many ways of looking at this. For instance, Michael Rezendes reports in today’s Boston Globe that it may help the president with fundraising. But I think the overarching reason is that Obama’s been dragged into the most vicious culture war in a generation, and he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Now he’s free to play both offense and defense. His base will be as energized as the Republicans’.

(Non-political, real-world aside: This is huge! Tuesday was a great day for our country, and Obama deserves our thanks and congratulations no matter what political calculations went into this.)

Which brings me to an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in November 2003, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional. I urged Democrats in general, and the presidential candidates in particular, to embrace the ruling. My argument was that if they didn’t, they’d be cast by the anti-marriage right as gay-marriage supporters without receiving any of the benefits of actually coming out and saying it.

I was proved correct the following year, when then-president George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in part on the strength of anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballots in a number of battleground states — all while Kerry kept professing his opposition to same-sex marriage.

We are free to speculate that Obama’s opposition to gay marriage was just as political as — or perhaps more political than — his about-face. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who’s against same-sex marriage, tweeted yesterday, “Pro-gay marriage in 1996. Anti-gay marriage in 2004. Pro-gay marriage in 2012. When Obama evolves, he evolves!” Jacoby was referring to a questionnaire Obama once filled out when he was running for office in Illinois.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/Jeff_Jacoby/status/200300582387458048″]

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is doubling down on his opposition to same-sex marriage and even civil unions. And in characteristic Romney fashion, he is saying the matter ought to be left to the states, which contradicts his own position. As Rick Klein of ABC News tweets, “important to add that he [Romney] wants to ban it at federal level, via Constitution.”

[blackbirdpie url=”!/rickklein/status/200577602212216833″]

In any event, the president is now on the right side of history, of morality and of human dignity. That it might also help him win re-election is beside the point.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Marriage should be in the eyes of the state a religious construct, nothing more. The state should get out of the marriage business once and for all, and rid itself of any of the implications.

    Further, I could be wrong, but to suggest Obama was ever “anti-gay marriage” seems quite a stretch. He, as far as I know, always has indicated he has been uncomfortable with any legislation that infringes any group’s constitutional rights. I, for one, think it’s OK for someone to be personally against something for religious or philosophical reasons while also accepting that the laws of the land dictate a different course.

    It’s too nuanced for Jacoby and the wingnuts, of course. But that’s no surprise. Wonder if he realizes Reagan was originally a Democrat?

    Flip. Flop.

  2. Actually, if past is prologue it is religions that should get out of the state’s marriage business. When Purtians settled Massachusetts, their marriages were strictly a civic affair. The concept of marriage pre-dates many organized religions including christianity.

  3. Rick Peterson

    Sure wish we could find another Democrat to evolve like Reagan did. Back then, you could actually make a good living as a commercial real estate broker since the national mood was optimistic. Funny, all those people accusing us of profiteering then aren’t running any fundraisers now. Guess once you’re a 1 percenter, the current lack of money becomes irrelevant. Just having had it makes you just as evil. I would love to see an example of where this class warfare has helped anyone with a 401k rather than a defined benefit pension.
    5 years then, making 120k, no pension = evil capitalist
    10 years now,at 100k with a 50k pension = selfless public service
    No wonder Krugman says we’re now in a depression. Public employees are starting to get laid off.

  4. Mike Benedict

    When it comes to religion, Christianity isn’t all that old — 2012 years, give or take. Of the surviving religions, Judiasm has it beat by at least 1000 years.

  5. Paul Rickter

    I’m interested by the commentary by some who note that, while same-sex marriage polls well, state anti-SSM referendums like the one in NC still pass almost always. These commentators fret that there’s a gap between polling and actual voting habits (a Bradley effect) on same-sex marriage and Obama’s position isn’t as popular as it appears.

    What they’re missing, I think, is the importance of who is turning out for these referendums, particularly lately. It’s notable that the NC referendum was on the same ballot as the Presidential primary — with a much smaller electorate that skews older than it will in November. This is a huge contrast to 2004, when many states put anti-SSM referendums on the November ballot, presumably with the aim of boosting turnout for GW Bush. I have to wonder whether the NC referendum would have even passed in November, when the electorate would have been younger and boosted by turnout for Obama.

  6. L.K. Collins

    It’s too bad that it has taken 3-1/2 years of his presidency to come to this decision.

    It was a good idea when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the subject in 2004. It was a good idea in 1904, 1804, etc.

  7. Mike Benedict

    And then there’s Mitt (if that’s his name — he can’t seem to remember) Romney’s approach to civil rights, which apparently involves beating up gays.

    There’s that darn liberal media at work again!

  8. What impressed me was how the president of the United States made the issue personal. He talked about staff members who are gay and are in committed relationships. He talked about the same-sex parents of his daughters’ friends. There are people in his life who are gay and lesbian and he doesn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be able to get married.

    And I agree with what you wrote in 2003. There’s no sense in the Democrats trying to be Republican Lite. Standing for civil rights is what the Democratic Party has been about for 50 years. They shouldn’t run away from that heritage or downplay it. They should embrace it and expand on it.

  9. jim morris

    Back in the 80’s when those of us who are gay couldn’t even dream of marriage my “significant other” was sick with cancer for five years before he died. During that time I was his caregiver, but towards the end, when there was little left to do but watch him die, his family began trying to interfere. They were quite hostile towards me and at one point his sister wanted to go to court to gain custody of him. Fortunately wiser heads talked her out of it, but had she pursued this we would probably have had little recourse to stop her. Once he died they objected to the obituary we had written together since it clearly stated our relationship and they didn’t want his homosexuality revealed in the paper. I was not legally family so I had no standing with The Boston Globe. An obit written by his family ran in the paper against my wishes.

    I’m relating this very personal story, a story too many gay couples have lived through, to try and convey why President Obama’s statement yesterday means so much to so many of us. In the past I’ve had a great deal to say about Obama’s handling of this issue, but right now I’m not interested in parsing his character or the politics of his announcement. All I care about is that yesterday Obama did the right thing and sometimes that is enough. I just want to say thank you.

  10. Frank Spencer-Molloy

    Right. Like Kerry might have won in ’04 had he embraced same-sex marriage.

  11. Jack Sullivan

    You’re right, @Frank, Kerry’s stance on gay marriage would not have made a difference. A nonpolitical, nonpartisan Supreme Court would have, though.

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