David Frum, the Family Research Council, the Alliance for Marriage, and Andrew Sullivan have all tried their hand at interpreting the president’s remarks on gay marriage. Here’s another possible interpretation: The president has not made up his mind about what to do or, if he has made up his mind, is not yet ready to say so. That does not necessarily mean, as Frum suggests, that the president is waiting on a further legal development to clarify the situation. He may be trying to figure out whether a failed attempt to pass an amendment would make the legal landscape worse, a scenario that Frum raises.
What to make of the president’s language suggesting that states should be allowed to create legal arrangements into which people could enter if they chose? Some social conservatives have interpreted that as a presidential statement that states should be able to create civil unions for gay couples. The president’s statement, however, leaves it unclear whether he would want a constitutional amendment (if he ends up going for one) to require civil unions to be a legislative act rather than a judicial one.
My impression is that the president leans toward a position that is a bit more qualified than what he said. If my impression is correct, the president’s view is that states should be able to create various legal arrangements so long as they are not discriminatory. Then the question is what is meant by “discriminatory.” It seems highly unlikely that the president would support an amendment that required states to have civil unions for gays so as not to discriminate against them. I think what he thinks–and I admit that this is piling inference on impression, and we will have to wait for a more formal announcement of the administration’s position to be sure–is that states should be free to let gay couples into civil unions or domestic partnerships so long as non-gay couples, and indeed couples who are not in a sexual or romantic relationship, are also eligible to enter these arrangements. That’s a position to the left of what social-conservative activists wanted earlier this year, but to the right of what conservatives in Congress are seeking.