Jena McGregor
Jena McGregor
Columnist for On Leadership

Gay marriage, Democratic leaders and the rush to follow

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS - Supporters of gay marriage hold rainbow-colored flags as they rally in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on March 27, 2013.

There’s been a whole lot of soul-searching going on in the Democratic party. Or at least, that’s what Democrats say.

In recent weeks, a parade of elected officials has lined up to announce the “evolution” of their principles on same-sex marriage. In the last three weeks, no less than 14 Democratic senators have said they’ve changed their position on the issue. That’s the same number, it’s worth noting, who came out in support of gay marriage in the 18 years following 1994, when Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced a proposal in the Wisconsin state legislature to permit same-sex marriage.

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It’s also exactly the same number of Democratic senators who came out in support of gay marriage in the four months prior to Vice President Biden’s admission, in a Meet the Press interview, that he is “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of same-sex marriage. It would take 10 more months for another eight — urged on, presumably, by the president’s own “evolution” in May of last year — to announce their support.

But the sudden rush of “lengthy consideration” and “personal reflection” that transpired in the last three weeks is the most rapid-fire turnaround on the issue we’ve seen yet. As The Fix’s Chris Cillizza pointed out on Tuesday, this is not a coincidental change of heart. It is a political calculation, pure and simple — a decision made in response to shifts in public opinion.

It’s also not leadership. The abrupt surge of officials trying to follow political winds is the opposite of the sort of courageous, principled way most of us hope our officials will lead. Rather than speak out about their true beliefs — it’s impossible to believe at least some of these 14 senators didn’t privately support gay marriage before — they waited until they had the political air cover of Hillary Clinton, one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party.

Or worse, perhaps, they still aren’t strong supporters of same-sex marriage, but changed their tune publicly after one of their Republican colleagues came out for the concept. If the issue had become accepted enough that their political opponents were signing on (there are now two Republican senators who support same-sex marriage and a recent GOP self-autopsy warned of how intolerance is hurting the party), they may have been afraid of looking too conservative. If that’s true, then fear won out again over courage.

Of course, it’s possible for leaders to change their minds, learn from others and, well, “evolve” their thinking. We certainly don’t want our leaders to be intransigent ideologues incapable of nuance, compromise or progress. A more candid response from a few of these folks — admitting, for example, that their job is to serve their constituents’ wishes, and that’s why they’re changing their tune — would at least have been a little more credible.

In the context of same-sex marriage, however, and the sudden rush of new political officials who’ve declared their support, the public statements ring a little hollow. As it is with gun control, “the public is so far ahead of the elected officials,” as Vice President Biden said in a taped interview aired Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” True leaders don’t have a follow-the-pack mentality. They set the agenda by bravely coming forward with untested ideas and principles no matter who has, or hasn’t, come before them.

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