NATCHITOCHES, La., May 10, 2012 — Following Vice-President Joe Biden’s lead, President Obama has come out in support of same-sex marriage. He describes his position on the subject as “evolution,” but it is clearly evolution of a strange sort.
Obama expressed his support of same-sex marriage several years ago in Illinois, when he was running for state office. His run for national office saw his position evolve in opposition to same-sex marriage. Marriage was, after all, sacred and not a civil right. Civil unions would be enough. Upon learning that his gay staffers in committed relationships were fine people (did he mean to choose people to work in the White House who were less than fine?), he tells us he began to rethink his stand, and after Biden warmly supported gay marriage last Sunday, first daughter Malia sat him down and told him it was time for him to follow suit.
This column came out in strong support of same-sex marriage rights last year, and it would be churlish to criticize the president for coming to the right conclusion (for now - the annoying thing about evolution is that it never stops, except for perfect organisms like cockroaches), however circular the evolutionary path. Obama should be applauded for saying the right thing, even if it was not courageous, so let us consider him applauded.
But the real topic here is politics, not same-sex marriage, and there’s nothing praiseworthy in the politics of what’s just happened. The profound lack of courage is arresting. It isn’t that Obama is a coward (there is no compelling evidence that he is), but he is a finely honed political calculation machine. He doesn’t act out of courage or conviction, but out of an exquisitely tuned sense of self-interest. He is no more brave or cowardly than a great white shark, just a man perfectly adapted to his political environment, constantly searching for any sad and tasty thing that falls in the water.
Obama would have preferred to leave his coming out party for a later date. Coming out for same-sex marriage should have been politically unnecessary this year. It could only hurt him in states like North Carolina, which he won in 2008, and it wasn’t likely that gays would migrate en mass to support Republicans if he didn’t do it. He’d done nothing unnecessary for them to this point, supporting the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” only when he had Republican cover. If every gay voter stayed home, he’d still win California and New York, and if every gay voter voted, he’d still lose Utah and Texas.
Then like a drunken teen in his dad’s BMW, Biden careened with the issue wildly into the spotlight, and on national TV, no less. Obama’s silence was suddenly embarrassing. To say nothing would be to look cowardly and weak. Coming out with a “me too” might at least pry open gay wallets, which to this point were shut as tight as Biden’s mouth should be, and indeed it did - a million dollars in 90 minutes.
And for that money, Obama has to do nothing. There will be no attempt to repeal DOMA, same-sex marriage won’t be on the Democratic platform. Obama, who crashed the same-sex wedding a long time ago and has been busily eating the cake, only had to clear his mouth, say “by the way, I approve of your marriage,” and go back to what he was doing.
It says something about the enormous antipathy gay Americans have for the GOP that they go teary eyed and wobbly for so little, from a man who treats them like a cleaning rag. A little sincere respect from the GOP would probably take a large chunk of the gay electorate from the Democrats, but in thrall as they are to social conservatives, the Republicans will never give it. Mitt Romney might have had at least a minor Sister Souljah moment if he’d come out in support of his gay foreign affairs advisor, but he couldn’t do it.
This entire episode has been nothing but a distraction. It’s persuaded the world that an act of raw political calculation is courage, it’s been called a second Stonewall, and yet it won’t change a single law.
Still, of all the wet Washington fingers in the air the president’s is the wettest, and he knows which way this wind is blowing. He understands that the easiest way to lead is to figure out where your people are going and then running to get ahead of them. He’ll pay a price. His fight for states like North Carolina just got a little harder (if the Democrats move their convention to another state, as they must desperately want to do after Amendment One, he might write-off North Carolina altogether), the GOP evangelicals just found a reason to get a little more excited about Romney.
And in a week we’ll move on to another story. It might even be one that makes a difference.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He thinks his church should be able to choose freely whom it marries, but he doesn’t want his government to be his church. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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