As soon as President Obama endorsed gay marriage last week, the principles have been mixed with the politics. And that’s actually a good thing.
On Tuesday, the political class fixated on a new poll showing that almost 70 percent of Americans think politics drove Obama’s decision. It’s the kind of data point that politicos love -- nevermind that it’s a methodologically flawed snapshot of a guess at someone else’s motivations. Even the New York Times, which commissioned the poll, seemed to agree. The Grey Lady plopped its story about evolution skepticism on page A17. No matter, it was the Internet’s top political story by 11 am.
Conservatives are declaring that Obama’s move has “backfired,” while many Democrats keep straining to find a genuine conversion -- one blogger reacted to the Times poll by crediting Obama for “a developmental kind of flip-flopping” -- “building, growing, and expressing more nuance and political clarity as the years roll by.” This kind of debate misses the larger point.
If the president did endorse gay marriage “for politics” -- because it’s increasingly popular and decreasingly toxic -- that in itself marks tremendous progress for the nation. Our political discourse is so driven by personality, however, it seems ordinary to plumb the depths of Obama’s personal conversion. (He has also invited it with the story he’s telling.) But I don’t think his personal feelings matter much, or those of Dick Cheney, Ken Mehlman or the growing list of politicians who find marriage inequality untenable. Nor does it matter how Bill Clinton’s heart has evolved from 1996, when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, to 2004, when he privately urged John Kerry to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, to May 2012, when he publicly campaigned against North Carolina’s Amendment One. What matters is that the nation is undergoing a rapid breakthrough and is increasingly ready for marriage equality.
So the story is not fundamentally about Obama, it’s about the public, and the culture, and the gay rights movement. The historical significance of the president’s announcement is not his personal narrative, it’s the consequential fact that an incumbent president has placed marriage equality within the center of a major political party and, by extension, as a baseline in the party’s platform. By contrast, none of the major Democratic presidential candidates held this position in 2008, even when pressed at the first-ever presidential debate devoted to gay rights.
In American politics, there’s a recurring fantasy, nurtured by the press, about “courageous” politicians who do the right thing against their political interest. But really, isn’t it even more encouraging when the right thing has just become good politics?