Democrats' Gay-Marriage Problem

When Judge Vaughn Walker ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case challenging California's Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state, plenty of people predicted Democrats would feel a backlash this fall. After all, many believe the events of 2003 and 2004 -- when the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that gays be allowed to marry in the state, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples -- helped George W. Bush win re-election by mobilizing conservatives to vote for state bans on gay marriage. (Scholars who have studied the question have concluded that the issue probably had a small but real effect on the presidential election.)

An alternative to the backlash narrative would say that, like immigration, same-sex marriage is an issue that is good for Republicans in the short term but better for Democrats in the long term. On immigration, it's a demographic fact that puts the Republicans in a bind: Hispanics, whom conservatives are currently working so hard to alienate, are the country's largest and fastest-growing minority group, and whites will be a minority of Americans in 2042, according to census data. On same-sex marriage, it's a combination of demographics and opinion: Those most opposed to marriage equality are older voters, and those most in support are the young. Every time a member of the "greatest generation" dies, and an 18-year-old registers to vote for the first time, the electorate becomes more pro-equality.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, Democrats have their own distinct gay-marriage problem. It isn't that they're too pro-gay -- it's that the position most Democratic politicians have taken for the last few years has become untenable. It's been undone by the rapidly changing legal and legislative landscape and the internal contradictions extended debate on this subject has clarified.

For a long time, Democrats didn't even need to have a position on same-sex marriage. It was something only anti-gay crusaders talked about, a boogeyman supposedly lying at the bottom of a slippery slope of gay rights. If we made it illegal to fire someone because of their sexuality, the next thing you know, two men will be allowed to get married! Gay-rights activists didn't want to talk about marriage much in public, seeing it as a long-term goal best put off until public opinion underwent a great deal of change.

But when Howard Dean surged to the front of the pack in the 2004 presidential primaries, the fact that as governor of Vermont he had signed the country's first civil-unions law was used as evidence of what a radical left-winger he supposedly was. Then came the Massachusetts ruling and the rogue San Francisco marriages. Democratic politicians were forced, many for the first time, to articulate just where they stood on same-sex marriage.

The place most ended up seemed at the time to be eminently reasonable. Same-sex couples, they said, should get some kind of legal recognition from the state in the form of a civil union. But, the Democrat would say uneasily, I still believe marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman.

It was well in line with public opinion, since favoring civil unions but not marriage had by then become the position of the median American voter. It acknowledged tradition, yet offered gay Americans more recognition than they enjoyed. It was neither harsh, like the stance of most Republicans who opposed even civil unions, nor radical. It seemed like the best place to be.

Yet the more we debated the marriage issue, the worse the standard Democratic position looked. It now seems logically inconsistent and without the courage of its convictions. Once you start probing it and looking to apply the moral principles on which it would claim to be based, it falls apart like tissue paper.

When your average Democratic politician is trying to explain his position on this issue, you can usually see the discomfort in his face. The assumption I've always made (and I'm sure most conservatives agree) is that the politician actually believes in marriage equality but is afraid of the political consequences. So he talks about how he believes we're all equal, except in marriage, and hopes no one will ask him exactly why gay people aren't quite equal enough to have their unions given the same status as those of straight people. If someone does, he rambles about tradition and his upbringing and religion, and can't quite come up with a rational reason why he believes what he does (you might remember John Edwards finally concluding, "I'm just not there yet," which presumably meant he eventually would be).

You could argue that this hemming and hawing reflects the kind of ambivalence many Americans carry with them as they continue to contemplate this issue. But politicians aren't supposed to be ambivalent. They're supposed to take clear stances, based on principles they can articulate. And it isn't as though no one has; according to the Human Rights Campaign, currently 56 members of the House and 16 senators have gone on record in favor of marriage equality. Far from a majority, certainly, but about 56 and 16 more than you could have gotten a few years ago.

One place we haven't seen any moral clarity on marriage is the White House. After the ruling, chief political adviser David Axelrod went before the cameras and made a game attempt to explain President Barack Obama's position: "The president does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples, and benefits and other issues, and that has been effectuated in federal agencies under his control." Axelrod also added that Obama "opposed Proposition 8 at the time."

So President Obama "does oppose same-sex marriage," yet he also opposed the initiative that eliminated same-sex marriage in California. And he "supports equality for gay and lesbian couples," yet he doesn't think their unions should be equal to those of straight couples, yet he applauded the ruling overturning the initiative that returned the state to the status quo that seems to embody the position he's taken (civil unions yes, marriage no). How's that now?

Fortunately for Democrats, it doesn't look like their opponents are going to be asking them a lot of questions about marriage equality this year. There may be some hot Republican-on-Republican action -- in GOP primaries, where one candidate accuses the other of not being tough enough on gays -- but it doesn't seem that the issue is going to be that big in the general election.

That's partly because the conservative culture war's Eye of Mordor has shifted to Islamic centers and the children of undocumented immigrants, and partly because the economy will swamp every other issue. But Democrats now have some time to steel themselves for their inevitable change of heart. The good news for them is that it isn't all that hard to change your position on this issue. With so many Americans rethinking their own beliefs, a politician can simply say that the more she thought about it and the more people she talked to, the more she came to realize that civil unions just aren't good enough, that separate is inevitably unequal. And within an election or two, even that won't cause a backlash.

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