Two days ago, the voters of North Carolina made history. They didn’t intend to, and they may regret doing so before long. But when they amended their state constitution to define marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman by a three-to-two margin, Carolinians set into motion a chain of events which will decide the last major civil rights issue in America in favor of freedom for all.
It wasn’t Amendment One itself which was earthshaking: North Carolina joined twenty-nine other states in prohibiting same-sex marriage via its constitution (the amendment also denies rights to unmarried heterosexual couples, including protection against domestic violence, but civilly-united Tarheels will discover all that soon enough). It was the timing. Yesterday, Barack Obama became the first President of the United States to endorse the right of same-sex couples to be married, and it was the North Carolina vote which forced his hand.
After a lot of hemming and hawing, probably because this is an election year and the various Republican pretenders have been busy all spring working the right-wing base into a lather, the President abandoned his fairly lame assertion that his position on this issue was “evolving” in favor of some straight talk. (Or was this “intelligent design”?) It took courage to do it, because his statement’s impact on his re-electoral fortune is far from clear. Some people think he just won the November election. Others think he just lost it.
Make no mistake: this was more than just a sudden epiphany. Perhaps the President’s hand was tipped by Vice President Joe Biden’s own support for equal rights for all Americans on last Sunday’s MEET THE PRESS (it gets lost in the news stories, but Biden carefully disclaimed his statement as a personal opinion, not coming from the President), because only the dimmest observer still wondered where Mr. Obama’s true feelings lay. But there’s a political calculation as well.
The Democrats will be holding their national convention in Charlotte in a few short months. It’s far too late to boycott the state. So if the President doesn’t take a stand on this issue by then, he’s likely to preside over a divided convention – the last thing the Democrats need right now – and, worse, make his party look like a bunch of hypocrites. There are already reports that he had decided around the first of the year to make this statement before the convention, just not quite so early.
But whether he reasoned that he had to make his party stand up for something, whether he figured this vote probably means I can’t win North Carolina again anyway, Mr. Obama once again demonstrated something that’s far too rare in Washington these days: good old red-blooded, all-American guts.
Friends, same-sex marriages will one day be legal in every single state. Or, more precisely, it will be against federal law to discriminate against same-sex couples anywhere in the country. This will happen without doubt, as sure as the Arctic ice sheet melts, because poll after poll shows support for equal rights increasing among younger people, while older opponents continue dying off. My guess is that the younger you are, the less likely it is that you grew up in an environment where most gays remained closeted. You’re therefore more likely to have openly gay co-workers and friends and to know them well enough to observe that there is no “gay agenda,” and that LGBT men and women are as honest and mendacious, brave and cowardly, generous and selfish, as are the rest of us. In fact, the only demonstrable difference is their particular sexual orientation (remember when we used to say “preference”?). Younger Americans have learned enough not to fear same-sex pairs of consenting adults, something many of their wise elders will never comprehend.
This is true even back in North Carolina, where House Speaker Thom Tillis, a primary proponent of Amendment One, acknowledged before the vote that the state’s next generation is largely opposed. “The data shows right now that you are a generation away from that issue,” he said. “If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years.” After all, we’ve been to this rodeo before. Look at this 2003 cartoon from Speaker Tillis’s own Charlotte Observer:
So, times are changing. But are they changing fast enough for President Obama in 2012, which is where we all live now? The President is on the right side of history, but history is littered with the political corpses of leaders who actually tried to lead. My city’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg called Mr. Obama’s statement “a major turning point in the history of American civil rights. No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people – and I have no doubt that this will be no exception.” But he is facing some strong headwinds, and this President is smart enough to know that. Yet still he chose the high road.
It reminds me of last week’s Pub talking point, the “impropriety” of noting the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. As The Economist put it, “Republicans moaned that Mr Obama was turning national security into a partisan issue, something which is usually considered their department.” The morning’s memo instructed right-wing media to use the term, “spiking the football.” (Remember when everybody, starting with Scott McClellan, coincidentally refused to “play the blame game” – those very words – right after Hurricane Katrina?) Let’s set aside the garish aircraft-carrier jet-pilot costume worn by the previous guy, who celebrated victory when the Iraq war was destined to plod on for eight more soul-grinding years, and just watch some knee-jerk reaction:
–Donald Rumsfeld said the Navy Seal raid was “not a tough decision” for the President, and to do otherwise would have been “dumbfounding.” Kinda like the Pakistan raid Rumsfeld himself aborted in 2005. But then, Rummy wrote the book on “dumbfounding” during his warfaring years.
–Mitt Romney told reporters that he, too, would have given the order to go after Bin Laden: “Of course, of course. Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” First, he’s implying along with Rummy that it “wasn’t a tough decision.” Second, he’s making Jimmy Carter sound like a wuss. But Mr. Romney should remember that it was the military that let Carter down on his very gutsy decision to order a rescue mission on the American embassy in Tehran, in April 1980. The debacle almost certainly doomed Carter’s chances for re-election, and President Obama knew that a failed mission could do the same thing to him. The top military brass, and Vice President Biden, urged Mr. Obama to bomb the compound – the safer, though messier, option. Instead, he ordered a surgical strike. It was not a slam-dunk. It was not a no-brainer. It was the moment when Pubs lost the national-security-tough-guy advantage against this President, and just being reminded of it drives them crazy.
But there are other issues this election season. Unemployment is dropping, but not fast enough. Most of the best parts of the Affordable Care Act have yet to kick in. And it’s tough taking credit for a counterfactual, such as the fact that the Administration’s stimulus package averted a major depression. (Mitt Romney said he’d “take a lot of credit” for the rebounded auto industry, even though he advised letting automakers go bankrupt, because the President used a “managed bankruptcy.” Of course, without the resulting federal loan, there would have been nothing to revive, and angry Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing said, “Mitt Romney taking credit for the auto rescue is like Benedict Arnold taking credit for the American victory over the British.”) Then there is the feverish drumbeat of the right-wing megaphone, which began with Rush Limbaugh’s candid statement, “I hope he fails,” and has resulted in howlers like Sean Hannity criticizing Mr. Obama for ordering “fancy French mustard” at a burger joint. No previous President in my lifetime has suffered such disrespect as an outburst during a joint-session address by a member of Congress, or of being repeatedly pressed to produce his birth certificate after he had already done so. And soon to come is the full wrath of right-wing Super PACs, now that the Pubs have quit using them to fling slime at each other.
So, today there is a new sword glinting in the hands of the intolerant, those always on the lookout for the dangerous and un-American “other,” whether that means immigrants, non-Christians, or same-sex partners. Only time will tell whether this measure of courage will help or hinder the President as he seeks a second term. But there’s one thing we can declare right now: this guy’s got guts.