Toby Harnden writes:
In recent days, President Barack Obama has jettisoned his legal support for the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), viewed by religious conservatives as a cornerstone of the principle that marriage should be between a man and a woman. He has also appointed a gay man to be the White House social secretary. At the same time, Democratic leaders in Maryland, most of them Roman Catholics and one of them, Governor Martin O’Malley, a potential future president, have pushed a same-sex marriage bill through their state’s legislature. In December, you’ll remember, Obama managed to end the notorious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) ban on gays in the military. So you can be sure as eggs is eggs that the familiar “wedge” issue of gay marriage will be used by Republicans in 2012, right? Surely, it’s a no brainer that accusations of the moral depravity of Obama and the Democrats will spread from pulpits to the people, from the bible belt and beyond?
Actually, there’s little evidence of this happening anywhere beyond the wild imaginings of Democratic strategists desperate for voters to be distracted from their fixation on the economy. Obama, who is a much more timid politician than most people appreciate, was late to the cause of gay rights (I’m aware the term sounds quaintly old-fashioned but I not quite ready to go from the modish acronym of LGBT – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). Although it’s clear from reading between the lines of his statements on the issue that he’s thoroughly in favour of gay marriage personally, he was a model of political caution in the way he edged towards achieving repeal of DADT. That foot-dragging prompted a lot of grumbling on the Left. But Obama began to get a little bolder once DADT was passed to a muted reaction from even the US Marine Corps, the most determined opponents of open homosexuals serving. By abandoning his administration’s previous resistance to legal challenges to DOMA, a triangulating nod to social conservatives by President Bill Clinton in 1996, a re-election year, Obama is simply acknowledging the political reality that it is safe for him to do so. He is following rather than leading public opinion.
The really dramatic change on gay rights has come from conservatives, some by omission (Sarah Palin, for instance, was not moved to comment immediately on DOMA) and some by active support for gay marriage. Ted Olson, the man who argued for President George W. Bush in the Bush versus Gore case in 2000 that secured the White House for Republicans, is the lawyer leading the case against California’s Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage. His argument that gay marriage is an American value, in that it promotes stable family life and is based on the principle of equality, has been hard for many conservatives to reject. Dick Cheney, the former vice-president and the father of a lesbian who has borne him two grandchildren, is another supporter. This month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington was riven by a dispute over sponsorship from GOProud, a Republican gay rights group. Some conservatives boycotted the event but most did not and firebrands like Ann Coulter and Congressman Allen West spoke out for equal rights. Within the Tea Party movement, which has a strong libertarian streak, social issues are very much in the background.
Perhaps the single biggest factor in all this is the economy. As the emergence of the Tea Party exhibited, ordinary Americans are mad as hell about government spending. Hundreds of thousands of people are far too busy worrying about whether they have a job to be much preoccupied with whether two consenting adults have the right to commit themselves to each other for life. It remains to be seen whether the gambit of Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a possible 2012 candidate, to call for a “truce” on social issues pays off. But it is hard to resist his logic when he argues that a broad Republican governing coalition will be hard to build if those who agree with Ted Olson and Dick Cheney are excluded. Obama would love the 2012 to be about issues like DADT and gay marriage because they would enable him to avoid speaking about unemployment, spending, stimulus and healthcare. All the signs are that Republicans won’t give him the chance.
Thank God for those whose black and Hispanic votes swung the reaffirmation of traditional marriage in California and Florida on the same day that they swung those states' Electoral College votes to Obama, with the black churches playing a pivotal role. Contrary to what Harden asserts, Obama has repeatedly and very publicly stated his commitment to that definition. As for the GOP, this, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is where you end up if you subscribe to neoliberal economics.