President Barack Obama insists that he didn’t announce his support for gay marriage out of political considerations. He’s right. He did it out of self-regard.
How it must have eaten away at him to be the first African-American president, yet not associate himself with what has been deemed the foremost civil-rights issue of the age. To be a progressive in favor of all things “forward,” but retrograde on marriage. To know that his stance was a transparent charade and see it treated as such by the lefty opinion makers he respects most. To watch his sloppy, unserious second-in-command get all the credit for moral courage by forthrightly endorsing gay marriage on Meet the Press while he clung to his artful dodge.
As an act of personal catharsis, the president’s statement of support was in an appropriately first-person key: I, me, and my. He had favored gay marriage back in 1996 when it was out on the fringe. He was one of the few people on the planet who flipped into opposition as gay marriage became more mainstream. For a while he invoked his faith in justifying his opposition, then he said he was “evolving,” which everyone understood to mean he would embrace gay marriage as soon as he wasn’t running for reelection anymore. The Obama team likes to say Mitt Romney’s flip-flops show he lacks a core. Obama’s long spell of deception on gay marriage shows he has a core, but one that he has devoted much of his national political career to obscuring.
The president’s willingness finally to say what he believes increased the sense among gay-marriage supporters that final victory is inevitable. History with a capital “H” is on their side. The 21st century itself is practically synonymous with gay marriage. Although this smug confidence will envelop President Obama as he campaigns in such lucrative precincts as George Clooney’s living room, it badly overstates gay marriage’s prospects.
History is littered with the wreckage of causes pronounced inevitable by all right-thinking people. The failed Equal Rights Amendment looked inevitable when it passed Congress in 1972 and immediately 30 states ratified it. Opposition to abortion that was supposed to inevitably wither away is as robust as ever. The forces favoring gun control seemed unstoppably on the march when Congress passed the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban in the 1990s, but there are more protections for gun rights now than two decades ago.
Gay marriage’s inevitability hasn’t been evident to the voters in 31 states who have written into their constitutions that marriage is between a man and a woman. The latest is North Carolina, where 61 percent of voters embraced the traditional definition of marriage in a referendum. North Carolina isn’t Mississippi. President Obama won North Carolina in 2008, and Democrats are holding their convention there. Nation-wide, no referendum simply upholding traditional marriage has ever lost, and even in Maine, voters in 2009 reversed a gay-marriage law passed by the legislature.
These state constitutional provisions constitute irreducible facts on the ground. Reversing them by democratic means will be the work of a generation. For the foreseeable future, the country will be largely traditional on marriage, with enclaves of same-sex unions as boutique blue-state institutions lacking full legitimacy. Rather than waiting for the tide of history to do its inexorable work, advocates of gay marriage really want the Supreme Court to impose their new definition of marriage. Inevitability’s full name is Anthony McLeod Kennedy, the swing-vote justice who is perfectly capable of remaking marriage by judicial fiat.
There’s no doubt that supporters of gay marriage have made progress, but they shouldn’t congratulate themselves yet. Their cause is still subject to events, such as President Obama’s fate this fall. If the president’s newly frank support for gay marriage costs him crucial swing states, his coming-out party will be seen — inevitably — as more a setback to the cause than a watershed.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate