Federalism and Marriage: Is Obama Taking Gay Supporters for Granted?

by Benjamin Domenech on 6:38 pm June 4, 2009

Same Sex Marriage Supporters Protest Obama

In every presidential term, even the more successful ones, there’s at least one major constituency that feels particularly ignored and slighted by the leader they supported. There can be more than one offended party, of course — Jimmy Carter managed to insult or offend more of the constituencies whose votes made him president than some would have thought possible — but typically, one group rises above all the rest in terms of feeling a level of distinct betrayal by the president they supported and labored for over months and even years.

Work your thoughts back toward the summer of 2004, and the constituency that clearly felt most betrayed by the Bush presidency was the socially conservative right. Hadley Arkes, a prominent scholar and a leading voice against abortion, took to the pages of First Things to excoriate the president and his staff for missed opportunities and lack of courage in a cause he claimed to support:

Hence the paradox that afflicts us now: we have the most pro-life administration that has ever been assembled, and at the head of that administration is a good, sympathetic man, who is deeply reluctant to make the pro-life argument in public or to start the kind of discussion that might bring about real change. It has been suggested that the leadership for pro-life initiatives must emanate from the Congress. And from the Congress, in the next year, the measures I’ve outlined may indeed come forth. But if this President’s second term is anything like his first, we can expect that Congressional Republicans will receive little help from the top of the administration. This state of affairs leads to the following melancholy judgment. For pro-lifers Mr. Bush must be counted as a real friend. But by his example, he is establishing what must surely stand as the most corrosive lesson that could be taught in this country right now—that in the judgment of an accomplished political man, it is either impolitic or unrespectable to make the pro-life argument in public. Whatever else may be accomplished by the Bush administration, this implicit teaching can have only debilitating and destructive effects on the pro-life cause.

Of course, Bush redeemed himself with pro-lifers in his second term with his appointments of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito to the Supreme Court, the near-total vindication of his stem cell policies, and the addition of a conscience rule on abortion which, while Obama immediately overturned it, drew a clear line in the sand regarding the rights of Catholic hospitals and other faithful health care providers.

But if you were to assess the constituencies disappointed with Barack Obama’s presidency thus far, you could write an astonishingly similar paragraph today, replacing “pro-life” with “gay rights” and “Bush” with “Obama,” and it would be a surprisingly accurate description of the current state of affairs.

As Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith outline today at the Politico:

Gay rights campaigners, most of them Democrats who supported Obama in November, have begun to voice their public frustration with Obama’s inaction, small jokes at their community’s expense and deafening silence on what they see as the signal civil rights issue of this era.

His most important campaign promises repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the military ban on openly gay and lesbian service-members have not been fulfilled. And the news, which emerged quietly earlier this year, that he’d supported same-sex marriage back in 1996, then changed his mind, especially rankles. As mainstream Democratic politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) move to support same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates say that the barrier-breaking president looks increasingly odd for opposing what they see as full equality.

They are hardly alone — President Obama’s administration has left several of its voting constituencies feeling betrayed, and not on minor matters. Centrist Democrats are disappointed with his budget and his “vulture capitalism” approach to Wall Street; environmentalists are displeased with his Interior Department policies, and gun control advocates dislike his acceptance of concealed weapons in parks; and of course, Glenn Greenwald and others are very disappointed with Obama’s continued defense of many Bush administration officials and positions, his pushback on truth commissions, policies on the NSA and classified intelligence, support for military tribunals and the whole of his detainee policy (policies which I and others right of center have been pleasantly surprised by for the most part).

As Greenwald wrote just a month after the election, when the disappointment was limited to the response to Obama’s appointments:

So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes. But it wasn’t Obama who misled them. It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered…

But Barack Obama is a centrist, establishment politician. That is what he has been since he’s been in the Senate, and more importantly, it’s what he made clear — both explicitly and through his actions — that he intended to be as President.

Yet if there is any constituency that should feel betrayed by the Obama administration in its early going, it has to be the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) community. It started with the inclusion of Rick Warren in the inaugural festivities, and now extends far beyond the positively apoplectic Andrew Sullivan, who’s written that Obama is thinking about meeting the desires of gay supporters with the “Fierce Urgency of Whenever,” to a wider swathe of more representative leaders within the party. As Martin and Smith report, quoting Howard Dean:

“There’s going to come a point where’s he going have to deal with it,” former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who now supports same-sex marriage, said of Obama. “I’m in favor of giving him a little more time. He’s got an awful lot on his plate.”

“But he is a politician like everybody else, and he’s going to respond to pressure. And I don’t blame the LGBT community for trying to push,” Dean said.

Dick Cheney’s position on the matter hasn’t made things easier for those same-sex marriage supporters who backed the president in November. As Jake Tapper pointed out, the President “honored LGBT pride month by not supporting same sex marriage” — a lack of support made all the more frustrating in comparison to the recent remarks by the former Vice President in support of states deciding marriage issues themselves, saying in response to a question:

I think that freedom means freedom for everyone. As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don’t support. I do believe that … historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. It has always been a state issue and I think that is the way it ought to be handled, on a state-by-state basis. … But I don’t have any problem with that. People ought to get a shot at that.

For those keeping count, this means that, as Donald Trump recently pointed out, Obama and Miss California Carrie Prejean have the same position on the matter — and Cheney is more progressive, or I would say more federalist, than either of them.

This isn’t a new position on marriage for Cheney. In fact, in 2004, he said almost exactly the same thing. And you can’t assign his position to catering to public perception, either — Gallup indicates that marriage views are essentially unchanged since 2004, with the latest poll indicating 57% opposition to same sex marriage, and 40% support.

Part of the reluctance on Obama’s part to deal with the hot button issues of marriage is a simple political calculation — his gay and lesbian supporters made up a relatively small portion of his electoral constituency, and were outnumbered in nearly all key states by minority and moderate supporters who are still uncomfortable with mandated same-sex marriage. For all his many faults as a candidate, John McCain won a surprising amount of support from gay voters: 27% of self-acknowledged gays and lesbians voted for McCain, representing a full 1.3 million votes — more than any Republican presidential candidate has received — as he held a position on marriage that was nearly indistinguishable from Obama’s.

One wonders if there is potential here for an opportunity for conservatives who share Cheney’s views on social policy to make inroads with a constituency that the president seems to feel he doesn’t need. Ever since the marriage fight began, the balance of opinion on the social right has been more fractured than mainstream media coverage seems to acknowledge. While it’s true that the majority of the 57% of Americans opposed to same-sex marriage do so for moral reasons, a driving force behind much of the opposition to these unions is more about the nature of the process that led to this decision. As Moe Lane pointed out recently, the attempts to “do an end run around the legislative process” through the court systems have only fueled voter-driven responses in the forms of state constitutional amendments requiring traditional marriage, exactly as we saw in California recently:

Poll after poll shows that the American people are more supportive of visitation rights, inheritance rights, adoption rights, insurance rights, and even formally recognizing and regulating domestic partnerships; they just don’t like being ordered to do it, and thanks to sixteen years of poor message discipline, they’re currently associating the same-sex marriage advocate’s position with a sneer.

But there’s another option here, one that — if gays and lesbians who support same sex marriage or civil unions are more interested in adopting a beneficial long-term tactic — should be considered as a national strategy that would require little if any support from President Obama, and alliance with moderate Republicans who share many of their goals.

It requires a consideration of what my colleague Dan McLaughlin describes as The New Federalism, an approach to divisive hot button social politics that was originally presented as a principled path for Rudy Giuliani to take as a way of ameliorating conservative concerns over his social policies on abortion and other issues. McLaughlin spun this idea into a speech he recommended Giuliani give, and one I still believe would’ve prompted a significant reexamination of this idea, based on the view that “I’m not saying that social issues are not important enough to be Washington’s business – I’m saying they are too important to be Washington’s business.”

[S]omewhere along the way, we wound up spending way too much time in presidential campaigns talking about a whole lot of things that really should not be the job of the president – in fact, things that shouldn’t be decided in Washington at all. Washington shouldn’t be fighting a “culture war,” and every day we spend fighting one with each other is a day we are distracted from fighting the real war.

So I’m not running to fight the culture war. But I’m not running to surrender it to one side, either. I’m running to propose a truce, a cease-fire we should all be able to agree on – a New Federalism that will return control over social and cultural issues to the states, cities and towns where these issues belong.

In the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time traveling this country and talking to people about their values – and you know what? People in other places don’t want anybody telling them to live by New York values, either. And the one thing nobody wants is to force everyone to accept Washington values. But the more these issues are decided in Washington, the more that’s precisely what happens.

Conservatives and Republicans didn’t like it when activist liberal judges started forcing their values on everyone else. And now that we have more conservatives on the courts, and a conservative president and for a while there a lot of Republican conservatives in Congress, a lot of our liberal friends started waking up and saying to themselves, “maybe getting these issues out of Washington isn’t such a bad idea after all.” Amazing thing for them to discover that all of a sudden. As Casey Stengel would say, you could look it up.

Over the coming months, I will lay out my vision of how the New Federalism will change the way Washington makes decisions. As President, I will oppose any effort to force people in Texas and South Carolina to live the way New Yorkers live, for the same reasons why I wouldn’t want New Yorkers to be forced to live like people in some other city or state. This is a great country, and it’s big enough for a lot of different communities and lifestyles. The New Federalism isn’t about my values, and it isn’t about Washington’s values. It’s about yours and your neighbors’, wherever you live.

The essential point is no different than the one Cheney more recently endorsed: the idea that every American should have the right to have their voices heard on these issues by voting in their state is a good one, and inherently true to the nature of our country. Clearly, on the abortion issue, this would require a repudiation of Roe, and many states would adopt abortion policy regimes that matched the current national law. But many would not — and those states would not be forced to, any more than Texas or Iowa should be forced to accept the same marriage laws that California or Massachusetts have adopted.

Supporters of same-sex marriage are always arguing that young people all agree with them on the issue, and that as the next generations become more politically active, it’s inevitable public opinion will shift in their favor. If this is true — and it probably is — then accepting this path will be a way for them to win their battle by convincing Americans it’s the right thing to do, not forcing the decision on an unreceptive public before its time (as they did in the 1990s, with the Defense of Marriage Act as a consequence), ensuring the culture wars continue for another generation.

If gay and lesbian advocates are truly disappointed with President Obama, perhaps they should start pursuing political alliances, however unlikely they may seem, with those who believe that American voters, not judges, should decide these critical issues. Ultimately, I suspect they would be wise to do so.

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