Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage does not change the political calculus

I watched with considerable interest and some amusement the coverage of the president’s remarks in favor of gay marriage on the evening news yesterday. This is a president who has long courted the gay community but has largely employed half-measures in doing so. He pledged to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” during the 2008 race but it took him two years to get a law through Congress to enact a “legal process” by which the policy might be ended and another year to actually kill the policy in practice.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a goofy policy from its inception during the Clinton administration in 1993. Essentially the armed forces accepted gays as service members provided that no one ever knew they were gay; of necessity it meant that these men and women led double lives mandated by policy, not just the same way that a non-serving gay person may lead a double life before coming to terms with his or her sexuality. Clinton, who wanted to end discrimination against gays in the military, accepted this bizarre compromise as the best he could do in cooperation with a Republican-led Congress.

Have you observed a “homosexual act”?

The president’s stance on the issue of gay marriage has been said to be “evolving” and in his statements yesterday he seems to have made it clear that one of the things that pushed him in this direction is his recognition that so-called civil unions are not, in fact, equivalent to marriage in conferring the same rights and responsibilities. Another factor is that, despite the lather that the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family work their members into, a decreasing number of Americans actually care that much about sexual orientation or see a reason why homosexuals shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual citizens.

The CBS Evening News interviewed a few members of a Hispanic church who stated that they had voted for Obama in 2008 but wouldn’t in 2012 because of this issue–the point of this being that Hispanics in swing states supposedly won the election for Obama during the previous cycle and they may defect in droves now that he is “going against the Church.” I think this is nonsense. People who are sufficiently conservative that they allow social issues to determine how they vote in major elections were never going to vote for Obama, particularly in view of the right’s continuing effort to paint Obama as slightly left of Karl Marx. If you listen to the propaganda coming out of the right-wing media, you would think that the man had nationalized every formerly private industry there was, expanded social welfare programs, replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Hammer and Sickle, and dramatically raised taxes on the richest Americans. In reality, of course, he’s done none of these things. Obama the President has proven to be far more conservative than Obama the Candidate. In this way, he’s actually a lot more like his opponent than liberals like myself would prefer. So if anything this may gain him some traction with gays but won’t really lose him votes.

So does Romney profit from this? Well, his statement after being asked was something along these lines: personally I think marriage is between one man and one woman but other people have other opinions–this is what I’ve believed as long as I’ve been in politics. In other words, it was the most Romneyesque of all possible responses. One can only speculate as to what he may have thought before he entered public life; it’s a shame when a man cannot even commit to his own opinions. In any case, Romney will never support gay marriage–because lots of people would simply not show up to vote for him or would vote for some third-party buffoon with no chance of winning–but neither will he say bad things about gays. So maybe a few people will vote for him who may have otherwise stayed home, but he won’t see any real advantage from this either.

Who benefits? Two groups, the two stakeholders who have the most to gain or lose from gay marriage becoming the law of the land nationwide: gays and people who hate them. Gays don’t get anything tangible from this outcome, only the knowledge that the incumbent in the White House would support gay marriage initiatives if his opinion had any weight in state legislatures where these decisions are actually made. Anti-gay groups get another wicker man to burn and another fundraising tool.

On the whole I expect that this will turn out to be the very definition of a tempest in a teapot.

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