Michael Tomasky on Why Obama Shouldn’t Defend Gay Marriage (For Now)

The arguments for Obama on gay marriage are strong, but not as strong as the arguments on the other side.

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For several years now, I’ve been giving some thought during idle moments to how and under what circumstances a Democratic president might announce himself in support of gay marriage. It’s been theoretical musing of course, but I figured it wouldn’t stay theoretical forever. And lo and behold, here comes news via Greg Sargent that Barack Obama’s advisers “have held serious discussions with leading Democrats about the upsides and downsides of coming out for gay marriage before the fall election.” Hmmm. Much as I might like to say otherwise, I’m afraid I have both feet planted firmly in the chickenshit caucus on this one.

Here are the upsides. First—and at least give me credit for not being so consumed by political considerations that I lost sight of this—it’s simply the right thing to do. Gay marriage is, as my Beast colleague Peter Beinart once put it in a panel discussion he and I took part in, “America’s moral destiny.” And obviously, Obama would get more credit for doing it a few months before seeking reelection than after. Lyndon Johnson signed the civil-rights bill in July 1964, just four months before an election in which he knew he’d lose the Southern states. (On the other hand, Barry Goldwater had more or less locked up the GOP nomination the month before, and Johnson knew by July that he’d crush Goldwater nationally, so he only gets a few points for that one.)

Second, the pro-marriage position is now in step with the American majority. It’s coming up on a year now that support for gay marriage has been the majority position. Gallup first found that result last May. It’s not a huge majority by any means—53 percent to 45 percent—but still.

Third, there are political benefits to doing so, and they would not be limited to gay politics. Democratic money people are now, one surmises, mostly in the place where they want to see this happen. If you read Alec MacGillis’s excellent report in The New Republic on those preening hedge-fund titans who have turned against Obama, you were perhaps as startled as I was to see that, although their views on class politics are what you’d expect and then some, many of them have raised money for one cause they apparently support widely: gay marriage. If it’ll get half the hedge-fund people back on his side, well, don’t tell anyone, but that’s got to be part of the agenda!

Beyond that, such an announcement would surely energize young people. This would give them a reason to go out canvassing again in the cold and rain just like they did in 2008. “Hope” T shirts would do a brisk business again. And more seriously, it would be very powerful indeed to hear a Democratic candidate for president—at his convention speech, before all the country and world—avow this right and make this stand. Young people hear the alter-kockers talk about the Democratic Party being the brave party, the party that took big risks to effect maybe unpopular but morally necessary social change. But when did the party last do that? The Beatles hadn’t even released Revolver yet. This would make 2012 into 1964 for the next two or three generations, ensuring that people see the Democrats as the party of the moral vanguard. And in 20 years’ time, when we hit the what-was-the-big-deal phase, the Republican Party would look silly and morally weak, even more so than it’s looked on civil rights since at least old Ev Dirksen was on the side of the angels.

And yet . . . boy, what a risk. It’s not so much that the November ballot is expected to bring dozens of marriage referenda. As far as I can see, we’re only talking so far about Maine, Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland, which are states Obama would win if he suddenly disappeared into a Woody Allen New Yorker short story and emerged declaring himself in favor of marriage between men and wheels of cheese. But what about Ohio. Pennsylvania. Michigan. And North Carolina—where, in the pretty-bold department, the president has already spoken out against the anti-gay marriage initiative that will be on the ballot May 8. The four states I just named add up to 51 electoral votes. Ohio and North Carolina may be dispensable, but Obama has to have Pennsylvania (20) and Michigan (16). They surely are put at risk if he touches this fiery button.

I think we all believe, everyone on every side of the issue, that Obama is really deep down for gay marriage but just hasn’t yet felt like he could say it. When he says “evolving,” we all understand that he really means he’s evolving toward the point when he feels he can say it publicly. This being the case, I would argue that it makes sense to win first and then do it. If he did it in a campaign context, many people would ascribe the move to other motives, and it would be the topic of heated debate. But if he does it in a second term, no one will be the least bit surprised. Oh, Fox and the right will howl at the moon, but no one will be actually surprised, and the conservative supporters of gay marriage, from David Brooks on down, shorn of an electoral context in which to try to find a reason to criticize Obama (for cynicism, what have you) will just say, “Okay, this is the right thing. Next.”

My theoretical musing has led me to land on the following scenario. Sometime fairly early in his second term, Obama goes to a gay wedding. A staffer, or a son or daughter of an old friend. The people must be absurdly wholesome and non-threatening looking, of course. (I mean, let’s face it—this is politics.) And he gives a toast. And he talks at some length—to two actual and sympathetic human beings—about the completion of his “evolution.” And the next day, the toast mysteriously leaks out onto YouTube. And that’s it. It’s like Kennedy calling Mrs. King.

He must then defend the principle, where and when necessary, and must do so strongly. And by Jan. 19, 2017, his last night in the White House, 65 percent of Americans will support the right, the usual 35 percent will be left wondering what happened to “their” country, and those new generations of Americans will still have seen, and still pretty dramatically, that a Democratic president took a risk and did the morally right thing. Which I’m all for. I’m just for winning first.