“It’s not a lie,” George Costanza said, “if you believe it.” But is it a lie if no one else believes it? That’s one of the questions raised by the news today that in David Axelrod’s new book, he reveals that Barack Obama wasn’t exactly forthright about his feelings on same-sex marriage in 2008:
Axelrod writes that he knew Obama was in favor of same-sex marriages during the first presidential campaign, even as Obama publicly said he only supported civil unions, not full marriages. Axelrod also admits to counseling Obama to conceal that position for political reasons. “Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church, and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union,’ ” Axelrod writes.
The simple interpretation of Obama’s decision is that it was just wrong. Any time a politician says he believes something that he doesn’t actually believe, it’s an act of deception that ought to be condemned.
The more complicated way to look at it is to place it on a spectrum of misleading statements that politicians make all the time. When a candidate says, “I am so excited to be here in Dubuque!” when he’d actually prefer to be back home with his family, it’s certainly an intentional deception, but it’s one we accept and expect. That’s at the most forgivable end; at the other end might be something like: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” That was not just a lie meant to mislead and terrify, but one that had catastrophic consequences for the country.
The context of Obama’s falsehood is important to understand both his own thinking and the reception his statements on the matter received. In 2008, the Democratic Party was undergoing a rapid change in its approach to same-sex marriage, and the stated positions of almost every candidate were in flux. Four years before, when the issue exploded into national debate after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage equality (their ruling actually came down in late 2003), Democrats scrambled to come up with a position on an issue many hadn’t much thought about before. Most of the presidential contenders came down in support of civil unions but against marriage rights, a position that just happened to be where the median voter was. By 2008 that was still the safest position, and the party platform didn’t mention marriage equality except to say that the party opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.
By 2008, everyone seemed to understand that the position all the major Democratic candidates were taking was a temporary way-station on the path to an eventual embrace of full marriage equality. Nobody really believed that was where the party and its representatives were going to stay. Half of Democrats supported marriage equality in 2008 — up from 40 percent in 2004 — but the public as a whole was not there yet. Support for civil unions was a position that was acceptable both to the party base, who knew it was only a matter of time before their leaders “evolved,” and to the general public, which was undergoing its own evolution.
Was all that a spectacle of political cowardice? Absolutely. But it’s hard to say that anyone in either party had many illusions about where it would end up. To no one’s surprise, by 2012 — when a majority of the public now supported marriage equality — the Democratic party platform embraced it, as did nearly every elected Democrat from President Obama on down.
There’s something else to consider as we judge the magnitude of Obama’s sin. In practice, the media tend to make much more about lies candidates tell about themselves than the ones they tell about their opponents, just as they make more out of lies on personal matters than out of lies about policy. If you tell a lie about your opponent’s tax plan, reporters will describe it as a he said/she said dispute — focusing on what you said — but if you lie about something like your military record or your education, they’ll say it reveals something far more profound about who you are.
This is exactly backward, because it’s the lies about policy that matter. This case is about both — Obama’s personal feelings, and how those feelings would eventually be reflected in policy decisions. But it isn’t that he was secretly plotting all along to create marriage equality for every American (the Supreme Court is the one that will do that). The policy steps his administration has taken on gay rights issues — ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” opposing DOMA — were things he said in 2008 he was going to do, and he ultimately did them. All of which could reasonably lead us to the conclusion that although it was certainly wrong for Obama to hide his true feelings on this issue, it may not be among the worst sins presidential candidates have committed.
Which brings us to today, and the presidential campaign that’s now beginning. Most of the Republican candidates are taking a position that is in some ways a mirror image of the one Democrats took in 2008: they say they’re personally opposed to same-sex marriage, but they think the decision should be left to the states. It’s another attempt to find a moderate-sounding middle position that assures the base without going too far for the general electorate (there’s a good round-up of what the Republicans have said here).
It does represent a retreat, though. A couple of those candidates, like Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz, loudly proclaim their opposition to marriage equality and advocate a constitutional amendment — but only one saying the matter should be left to the states, not an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage entirely. This is a very different place from where the party was a few years ago. Even Mike Huckabee, who has been more emphatic about his opposition to same-sex marriage than any of them, is focusing on the legitimacy of a Supreme Court decision that takes the matter away from the states, not rolling back marriage equality where voters and state legislatures have made it the law. Would they actually prefer to outlaw same-sex marriage everywhere, despite what they say today about letting each state decide? We won’t know until their advisers write tell-all memoirs.
So everyone is evolving, one way or another. And there’s one other person whom I’d be interested to hear from, one whose evolution exactly mirrors Obama’s: Hillary Clinton. She came out for marriage equality in 2013. But where was she on the issue in 2008? Did she personally believe gay people should have full marriage rights, but stopped short of saying so, because the political atmosphere wasn’t quite ready for that? We’ll have to wait to hear how she describes her own evolution.