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When historians write the story of America's cultural revolution on gay marriage, March of 2013 may well get its own chap...
When historians write the story of America's cultural revolution on gay marriage, March of 2013 may well get its own chapter -- the month when the political balance on this issue shifted unmistakably from risky to safe.
But historians will surely also note that this was a movement in which the politicians, for the most part, were mere passengers along for the ride. With very few exceptions, elected officials remain profiles in caution and calculation, while activists and courts are the real engines of change.
All of this month's three big gay-marriage moments -- in which prominent politicians repudiated their past positions -- highlighted how much vacillation, equivocation, and even hypocrisy continue to define the political response to this issue. That's true even as, in many cases and especially for Democrats, it is now riskier to be seen as a laggard in embracing gay marriage than to rush in line behind what just not long ago was a radical stand.
Hillary Clinton caught bouquets from many liberals for her video this week backing gay marriage, a stance which now enjoys majority support in national polls. She cited how the experience of knowing gay friends caused her to rethink her position. But does anyone really believe that Clinton's actual views have changed since the 2008 presidential campaign, when she was against gay marriage, rather than her calculation that the safe position has changed?
Bill Clinton himself had some explaining to do this month when he reversed course on the Defense of Marriage Act reviled by liberals, even though he signed it during the midst of his 1996 reelection campaign. Between the lines of his Washington Post op-ed, his argument was pretty simple: The politics of the issue were murder for Democrats back then.
Even the Republican making headlines on gay marriage this month, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, is taking a stand that is less bold or principled than first meets the eye. He said his view changed because his son told him he was gay, two years ago. But every gay person is someone's kid -- a fact that surely occurred to him when he crafted his former position against same-sex marriage.
Amid this rapidly shifting ground, here are a half-dozen takeaways on the new politics of gay marriage:
The middle ground on marriage is disappearing fast
As recently as 2008, both major-party presidential nominees had nearly the same public position on marriage: let there be civil unions, not gay marriage, and let each state set its own policy. That was a safe view for pro-gay Democrats and moderate Republicans alike.
Today, that position is fully acceptable only to a diminishing slice of the electorate. For supporters of gay marriage, it looks like an insulting, separate-but-equal proposition. For opponents of same-sex unions, it's an invitation to a chaotic patchwork of laws governing an immutable human institution.
In a Washington Post poll this week, 64 percent of voters said the gay marriage issue should "be decided for all states on the basis of the Constitution," while only 33 percent favored letting states make their own law.
Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who signed a gay-marriage law in 2009 only to see it fall at the ballot box, said a civil-unions or state's-rights stance is "no longer sufficient," at least among his fellow Democrats.
"You can't nuance this issue -- I mean, you have to treat everybody equally," said Baldacci, whose state voted on marriage again last year, this time approving gay unions. "I think we'd kind of been raised, at least in our party on the national level and the state level, to think that civil unions are kind of the end of the road ... It was kind of an 'aha!' moment for me when I sat down with my legal researchers, and it was very clear that the Constitution required equal protection."
There are plenty of politicians who are still seeking out a split-the-difference stance on marriage: Portman identified himself as a supporter of gay marriage last week, but said different states can adopt different policies. When President Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage last year, he said he also believed states should set their own laws. (His administration more recently filed a brief with the Supreme Court calling gay-marriage bans unconstitutional.)
In a country defined by mobility and in which Congress and the courts usually have not hesitated to set national standards on the most fundamental issues, it's hard to see a principled case that gay marriage should be legal in some places and illegal in others. In a different context, no one who in 1964 announced that "I'm personally opposed to segregation but I think states like Mississippi should be allowed to decide for themselves" would have been described as a progressive.
The left is empowered -- and hypocritical
The fight over gay marriage in 2004 was defined by the "antis," with George W. Bush's campaign bolstered by a base-motivating ballot measure in Ohio. Less than a decade later, the left believes -- with reason -- that it has gained an irreversible upper hand in the fight, a position backed up by a large-scale demographic and cultural change.
The four ballot measures that the gay marriage movement won last November were the culmination of that rapid shift. The pro-gay marriage fight has now shifted to a scattershot group of statewide battles that will take place over the next year, some of them before the U.S. Supreme Court issues rulings in cases about DOMA and California's Proposition 8.
The anti-gay marriage position "is increasingly confined to just a few segments of the public," said Evan Wolfson, head of the group Freedom to Marry, citing polling that shows support for same-sex marriage is now a majority opinion nationally.
Still, while gay marriage proponents agree on equality, they don't agree on how everyone gets there.
Portman faced criticism from some on the left for arriving at a pro-marriage stand only after a member of his family -- his son -- came out. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was lionized for taking the same position a mere few days later.
To be sure, she had a strong record on gay rights globally while she was at Foggy Bottom (a fact her supporters often note), while this is not an issue that Portman has been at all involved in more broadly. Yet several Democrats privately said they think she could have backed gay marriage while still at the State Department after Obama did. As one politically active gay Democrat said: "She gets a grand pass from all of us."
The Portman-bashing was by no means uniform: "No one, but no one should ever be criticized or ridiculed for supporting equality," said gay activist Richard Socarides. "Quite frankly, I was horrified by some of what was said. Everyone is entitled to their own process."
Change started in the courts
There's one branch of government that didn't wait on public opinion to push for same-sex marriage: the judiciary.
Even as the country's most progressive politicians sought out middle-of-the-road positions on gay rights, a series of state-level court rulings forced the marriage issue to the fore of the conversation. The dominos began to fall with Vermont's 1999 ruling in favor of either marriage or civil unions, while marriage-equality decisions followed after in Massachusetts (2004), California (2008) and Iowa (2009).
The political consequences of those rulings were manifold: they gave politicians cover to implement same-sex unions ("We have a court order to deal with!") and created test-case states in which voters could see what gay marriage looks like, with many concluding that it is a benign institution.
In that respect, there's a parallel to the civil rights movement, which saw segregated schooling and anti-miscegenation laws invalidated from the bench even as Congress dithered on issues as fundamental as voting rights.
Gay-marriage advocates may have paid a price in the short term for having judges advance their agenda: the Massachusetts ruling in 2004 probably helped trigger a backlash that helped reelect George W. Bush to the White House. In Iowa, three justices were voted off the state Supreme Court for endorsing same-sex marriage.
But over the long run, it would likely have taken the country much longer to switch to a pro-gay marriage position if the courts hadn't decided to jump the gun on legislative action.
"I think we may have been just a couple years ahead of the social change," reflected former Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Baker, who added: "From a legal standpoint ... to put it bluntly, there was no other way I felt we could rule.
Dick Cheney is a civil rights hero
Yes, we just wrote that sentence. And it's possible that Cheney himself, not just liberals, would recoil. But the reality is that the former vice president and scourge of liberals was the original Rob Portman, taking a personal stand in support of gay marriage -- and his gay daughter, by extension -- more than a half-generation ago.
In 2000, just four years after Bill Clinton signed DOMA, Cheney unveiled his laconic but powerful catch phrase on the issue of gay rights: "Freedom means freedom for everybody." He said the issue of government-recognized relationships was "not a slam dunk" but the issue should be left to states.
During the 2004 campaign, as the Bush administration pushed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Cheney was quoted in The New York Times saying that gay people should be allowed to "enter into any kind of relationship they want to."
While saying that Bush, not himself, made "basic policy for the administration," he said he favored a states'-rights solution on marriage much like the one Obama originally endorsed last year. Whatever Cheney's personal views were, the administration he served in did little to support gay rights.
As a staunch conservative, Cheney also has tended to be an afterthought in the gay rights discussion -- except when clips of him making speaking up for gay rights are used in ads from groups such as Respect for Marriage.
But The Human Rights Campaign's Chad Griffin said that Cheney's position was "quite significant" for gay rights.
"I do think Dick Cheney deserves credit on the issue of gay marriage," he added. "He was out there early, before [almost every] Republican and before most Democrats."
A Democratic donor who is gay put it more bluntly, describing how he warned a Democratic congressman in a conversation on gay marriage: "I hope you're not to the right of Rob Portman and Dick Cheney."
Political leadership was rare but significant
While there has been a surfeit of timidity and flank-covering among elected officials, a handful of politicians who endorsed gay marriage at the right moment were genuinely consequential.
The list of gay marriage hall of famers is relatively short: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick backed same-sex marriage during a 2006 gubernatorial primary, when it was unclear whether heavily Catholic Massachusetts would accept the marriage-equality ruling of the state's Supreme Judicial Court. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who signed an important civil-unions law, drew flak in the 2004 election for suggesting he might one day be called the "first gay president."
A parade of Democratic governors, including New York's Andrew Cuomo and Maryland's Martin O'Malley, have more recently pushed through gay-marriage laws that drove the national debate. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, back when he was state Senate president, helped override a Republican governor's veto and make gay marriage part of state law.
The politician whose endorsement of gay marriage mattered the most, however, was probably one who didn't take a particularly big risk on the issue: President Obama.
Though he only backed same-sex marriage in the middle of 2012, well after it became a mainstream position -- and after his own vice president effectively endorsed gay marriage -- Obama played a big role in turning the tide of national opinion, especially among nonwhite voters.
Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who polled for gay-marriage supporters in a Maryland referendum fight last year, said a huge part of the shift that made gay marriage a majority position came among African-American voters.
"What changed this issue in Maryland was when President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage last spring," Yang said, pointing also to referendum wins last year in Minnesota, Maine and Washington state: "Before these four elections last November, same-sex marriage had been defeated 32 times in a row ... I do think those small ripples have made a difference."
The fight isn't over
The broad assumption in political circles is that in the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court will settle the issue of gay marriage in some form, through the Proposition 8 case and one asking for DOMA to be struck down.
Victory in both cases could produce bipartisan dividends, according to pro-gay marriage forces on the Democratic and Republican side.
For Republicans, victory for the pro-marriage side could take a difficult issue and shelve it -- a version of the "I personally oppose it, but it's the law of the land" stand that a number of GOP governors have taken with respect to the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.
"It could be a savior of the Republican Party because it takes an issue off the table, and they don't have to pay a price for it," said one operative.
But what if the outcome isn't that clear? What if the emerging popular consensus in favor of gay marriage clashes with a still-intact regime of state laws that largely ban same-sex unions?
The possibilities are broad, but there are several outcomes that would muddy the waters, and bring fresh pressure to bear on Obama and other officials.
"A loss in these two cases, I think, is terrible for any person running for office," said the operative, adding that it will put all candidates on the Democratic side in a bind.
A gray-area outcome -- something that is less than perfectly clear about whether gay marriage is legal in the United States -- is massively complicated. Obama became the first president to talk about gay rights in an inaugural address earlier this year, and ameliorated some of the concerns in the gay community about his states'-rights position with the administration's briefs in the Supreme Court cases.
Still, if there is anything but a clean win, it becomes a much more complicated path forward, for Obama and for all candidates.