The White House, according to a senior official, always knew it was going to have to take the plunge on publicly supporting same-sex marriage, and planned to do it in the first term — well before the convention.
The topic had been under discussion since the beginning of the year. President Obama had come to his new position, and there was no way — in the course of a convention in North Carolina, which just passed an anti-marriage constitutional ban; three debates; and the maelstrom of a presidential campaign, to keep ducking.
Then came Vice President Biden’s remarks. If you think they were part of a well-orchestrated conspiracy — well, you don’t know Joe Biden. Also, you are seriously overestimating this White House’s planning capabilities.
So Biden, according to this account, which makes sense to me, dramatically speeded up a preexisting, if not-yet-fully-hatched, plan. Tuesday morning the decision was made to have the president make his remarks as soon as possible. As soon as possible was Wednesday, with ABC News.
I wrote earlier this week that the president’s continued evasion on the issue was becoming a test of character and leadership for Obama. With the ABC News interview, the president passed the test.
Will it help or hurt politically? The answer is (a) probably a mix of both and (b) no one really know. The White House was braced for major fall-out from the ending of don’t ask/don’t tell. Nothing happened. It was similarly prepared to take a hit from its decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. Ditto.
Wednesday’s news is bigger, symbolically if not legally, but the country has been changing so quickly on same-sex marriage that political consequences aren’t clear. African-American voters who oppose same-sex marriage are unlikely to vote for Mitt Romney — or even to stay home in November, notwithstanding the president’s change of heart on marriage. White working class men in swing states might be more of an issue.
His remarks put the president on the right side of history — and on the opposite side from Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican nominee said he opposes same-sex marriage and said, “I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender and I don’t favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name.” I’m not sure what that means but it doesn’t sound good. More like separate and unequal than separate but equal.
Speaking of which, there remain questions about the scope of the president’s support. He seems to have taken the plunge in favor of same-sex marriage, but not necessarily in support of the view that the Constitution protects that right.
In its brief declining to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Justice Department argued that laws discriminating against sexual orientation were subject to heightened judicial scrutiny, meaning that states (or in the case of DOMA, the federal government) have to come up with a pretty good reason to justify it. In legalese, at the very least, the discriminatory law has to be “substantially related to an important government objective,” a test which would suggest that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
In his remarks to ABC News, Obama wasn’t asked about constitutional protections for gays and lesbians — and he didn’t go that far. Instead, he said that decisions about marriage have traditionally been left to states. Which raises the question: Does the president believe that the reasoning of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case that declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, applies to homosexual couples as well as interracial ones?
But that is a matter for another day. For those of us who believe in the right of gays and lesbians to marry, Wednesday was a moment for celebrating, not word parsing. In 2016, and in elections to come, it will not be big news for a president, or a presidential candidate, to support same-sex marriage. And that will be the best news of all.