Did the president make a strong and serious case for this? Not yesterday. He may, of course, do so in the coming election campaign. Indeed, he has to do so if he is not to be reasonably accused of acting from purely electoral calculations. And because he has taken as many positions on this issue as a contortionist imitating a pretzel, he is especially open to the charges of cynicism and flip-flopping.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe those were his motives. My guess is that he was becoming embarrassed by the fact that his “evolution” on the issue was making him a quiet laughingstock among intelligent people whose respect he values. No, I’m not saying my squib of an argument influenced him. He won’t have seen it. But that kind of mockery was becoming widespread. He is intellectually proud, and it hurt him — especially when his own vice president emerged as a Profile in Courage by comparison.
At that very moment the success of the North Carolina proposition opposing same-sex marriage on Tuesday came to his assistance. It made his statement yesterday look almost courageous, and, at least for the moment, it has insulated him against the above charges of cynical positioning. But only for the moment.
In the longer term this looks like offering the president more electoral risks than benefits. Not that he is taking a great risk with suburban middle-class voters, as some foreign correspondents are suggesting. That constituency is probably the group of voters least concerned about this issue. Taxes, jobs, spending, and the deficit create much more anxiety in their hearts. It is Evangelicals, Hispanics, black Americans, and gay Americans who are most likely to be influenced by same-sex marriage.
Again, none of those groups will be fired up over it. Faced with a choice between a Protestant who supports gay marriage and a Mormon who supports traditional marriage (and has had at most one wife), however, Evangelicals will push their nervousness about a Mormon president to the back of their soul and vote Republican with a clear conscience. Hispanic and black Americans, who are more socially conservative than other Americans, will be harder for the Democrats to arouse and drive to the voting booth. And gay and lesbian Americans — or, rather, those for whom same-sex marriage is a priority — will be much more willing to vote for Obama and to donate money to his campaign. But they are few in number electorally and the Obama campaign already has more cash than it knows how to spend usefully.
No one issue will decide the forthcoming election, and if such a decisive issue were to exist, it would not be same-sex marriage. But if in the end President Obama loses in November, yesterday’s decision will have been a significant contributory factor.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.