Thursday, May 10, 2012

So You Say You Want An Evolution

Some time back, President Obama said that his views on same-sex marriage were "evolving," and it appears that they have now evolved.  Yesterday, he announced his personal belief that men should be able to marry men, and women should be able to marry women.

The real question, of course, is whether this is evolution or intelligent design.

Now matter how true, heartfelt or long-considered, it seems certain that the president's remarks were also part of a campaign strategy, intended to shore up support among the left (and, okay, center) of his own party at the expense of its vestigial right.  It is possible that they were also an appeal to certain unaligned swing voters, especially those of a libertarian stripe.  And 61-65% of people under 40.

Mind you, some people -- savage Gawker critique here -- aren't all that impressed.  Obama gives his personal opinion, but doesn't offer to lead a charge.  He wants to let the states decide, which is perfectly reasonable if you consider it a moral gray area, but less so if you consider it a matter of fundamental right.  (As a political reality, we are hard pressed to imagine any other way to make same-sex marriage possible.  The Scalia Roberts Court will trash any federal rule or law, and the present political climate would not permit a constitutional amendment in favor of puppies.)

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell offered a look at GOP heir presumptive Mitt Romney's own "evolution," which appears to have reversed the trajectory of Obama's.  In 1994, Romney wrote a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, proudly declaring his support for "full equal rights for gays and lesbians," actually trying to position himself to the left of Ted Kennedy, and today he says that he opposes gay marriage.

O'Donnell claims that, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court gave its okay to the idea of same-sex marriage, Romney took a "hard right turn" on the question; this does not seem entirely fair.  First, the quotation from the 1994 letter doesn't specifically mention marriage, and it may be that in those innocent years Romney didn't consider the question of marriage to be a matter of equal rights.  Second, the more recent video clip has Romney adding that he supports equality in "partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like."  This may not be what "full equal rights" look like in the current debate, but it was not so long ago.  In any case, there is a right much harder than this to which Romney might have turned.

It seems to us that both men are inclined to moderation on the question, and with good reason.  Public opinion is changing rapidly, but the debate remains fierce and emotional.  For a man who wants to be elected and then govern, discretion probably looks like the better part of valor.

Still, Obama has staked out a position on the matter, which -- under the rule that presidential candidates may never agree about anything beyond the color of the sky and the wisdom of the American People -- practically forces Romney to stake out another.  His fellow-Mormon, Harry Reid, has already made a sharp distinction between his personal opposition to gay marriage and his willingness to accept it as part of a a "civil society."  Romney could try this, and it might work.  (It might also have the virtue of being honest; our gut says that's about where he stands.)  But for many Republicans, this would simply be further proof that Romney is a French-speaking Massachusetts liberal, or as they like to say a RINO.

So Obama has taken a modest gamble here.  Now Romney needs to take one as well.  How far to right can he move without looking like spineless opportunist?  And how far to the left can he go and still hope to be  Republican president?

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