Marriage Equality.

A little too predictably, Barack Obama’s announcement that he was in favor of gay marriage rights elicited some harrumphs on the Left. Richard Kim was skeptical, and Adam Serwer was underwhelmed.

I would never question any progressive’s prerogative to doubt the Obama Administration’s policies. I’m not a big fan of the administration myself. But that doubt should also be open to scrutiny. In this case, I think it’s a little too knee-jerk. It’s almost become sort of a game on the Left to see who can come up with the best explanation for why a seemingly liberal policy by this administration is in fact bad for liberals, and that seems to part of what’s going on here.

I think this is as big a a deal as it’s being made out to be. But don’t take it from me; take it from Obama’s most unforgiving critic on the Left. As Greenwald points out, guessing the president’s motives – whether this is a matter of personal conviction or political calculation – is beside the point. Presidents likely have multiple motives for just about everything they do, and in the end Who cares?

It’s worth noting, too, that even the praises Obama is enjoying are a little stingy. Many have described him as the “first sitting president to support gay marriage.” Serwer goes farther, admitting that he is “the most pro-LGBT rights president in U.S. history.” I’d go farther still: Barack Obama is the only pro-LGBT rights president in U.S. history. The one other president who could even pretend to have been a supporter of LGBT rights is Bill Clinton, the president who promised to allow gay citizens to serve openly in the military and instead gave us “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Obama, meanwhile, has repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has ordered his Justice Department to ignore most of the Defense of Marriage Act, has extended benefits to same-sex couples who are also federal employees, and has now declared gay marriage the right thing to do. Obama has been a disappointment on many, many issues, but gay rights is not one of them.

Kim and Serwer’s main complaint is that Obama has embraced a “states’ rights approach,” a “same-sex marriage federalism,” because he wants to leave the issue to the states to work out. I think this criticism misses the point. It’s probably safe to assume that Obama – a constitutional scholar, as is invariably pointed out – knows that gay marriage is a federal issue as a point of law. Given that, I’m guessing that his “leave it to the states” approach has two motivations. First, although he is willing to declare support for gay marriage in an election year, he is not willing to engage in a protracted legal battle over it, which seems reasonable as long as he is willing to put more muscle into the fight in his second term. Second, he realizes that it is better strategy to have gay marriage percolate from the states and rise up to the federal level rather than be imposed by the federal government on the states. This also seems reasonable; I respectfully disagree with Scott Lemieux’s take on this matter. Let’s say it’s safe to assume that in whatever fashion gay marriage is finally made legal nationwide, social conservatives will take it to court. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, marriage equality would be a risky proposition. Its chances would be much, much better if it emerged from state legislatures and state appellate courts. That way it would have a broad constituency and couldn’t be presented as the work of a single administration or even a single man: “Obamatrimony” (or something). When the nineteenth amendment passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote, it passed in no small part because many states had already enfranchised women. Once the states start extending rights, it’s hard for the federal government – or even the Supreme Court – to take them away.

But a majority of U.S. states ban same-sex marriage, either through statute or constitutional amendment, so how can we rely on states? Because one state matters more than any other: California. One in ten Americans lives in California, and the state has always had outsized legal influence – outsized even for its own considerable dimensions. At some point this year or next, or maybe the year after that, California will work out its on-again-off-again relationship with marriage equality. The longer it takes, the more likely the result will be legal marriage for same-sex couples, since that’s the direction the electorate is moving in. And when gay marriage is legalized in California, it will add a great deal of weight and precedent to Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut. That kind of momentum, and not a single federal order, is what will protect marriage equality from the inevitable legal attacks it will sustain.

Political opportunism is not absent here. Some voters, apparently, think that Obama made the announcement because it has become the cool thing to do. I doubt it. Supporting marriage equality is still riskier than not supporting it; there are more people who will vote against you based on this issue than will vote for you. The opportunism is more oblique than that: for the first time in a long time (ever?), the Democrats are emphasizing culture-war issues like gay marriage and women’s rights to distract from the economy. Obama thinks that he will fare better on cultural turf than on economic. That’s a pretty conventional Republican strategy, and it’s unusual for liberals to be the beneficiaries of it when it comes to social issues. But despite that calculation I think Obama’s support of marriage equality is sincere, and I think he has a sense of how to advance it in his hypothetical second term. So on this one he deserves credit, and a certain amount of respect.

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