While the world waits to see whether President Barack Obama’s position will “evolve” on gay marriage before Election Day, one thing is certain: His party’s evolution has already taken place.
Obama is probably the last Democratic presidential candidate who can win the nomination without voicing full-throated support for marriage equality. For the past two presidential cycles, LGBT voters have swallowed their pride and opened their wallets while the Democratic contenders dissembled. On one hand, they claimed to be for full equality, while on the other they demeaned our relationships and damned them to second-class status.
Implicit in this humiliating deal was that the Republican challenger was so awful that gay voters had nowhere else to go. There was also the underlying fear that turning critical elections into referendums on same-sex marriage might backfire and place an ogre in the White House.
This trepidation was exacerbated by the candidacy of Ralph Nader, who elevated (with the help of the Supreme Court) George W. Bush into the Oval Office. This historic debacle underscored that elections can have severe consequences and that victory in this divided nation often comes by a razor thin margin. In truth, many LGBT voters were concerned about being cast in the role of Nader and blamed for sabotaging a close election.
In terms of Barack Obama, the activist side of me wants him to embrace marriage equality today. As someone who is legally married, I personally feel the sting of not having access to the same federal rights and benefits as my heterosexual peers. Because I travel often for my job, it seems that half of the month I’m in a recognized marriage in Vermont, while the other half I find myself in states where I am officially single and have no legal protection. Such disparate treatment is disgraceful, humiliating, and un-American.
Nevertheless, the pragmatic part of me wonders whether Obama embracing gay marriage will harm his chances in the nine swing states that will decide this election. Clearly, these states are not all bastions of tolerance: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
There is also concern over how embracing marriage for same sex couples would impact the four states that lean in favor of the Democrats (Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, and Maine) and the states that teeter towards the GOP (Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina).
The argument in favor of Obama evolving now is that most voters believe he already supports gay marriage and those who would vote against him because of this issue were never voting for him anyway. Meanwhile, coming out in favor of marriage equality would energize the progressive base and open the floodgates of gay volunteers and money. It would also show true leadership and restore the idea that Obama’s presidency stands for hope and change.
I wrestle mightily with the ramifications, if any, the President might face if he supports gay marriage. LGBT advocates can be mostly correct about the decision having few consequences. But a bad outcome in one or two of the seventeen swing or tilting states could still cost Obama his reelection. Thus, I remain deeply ambivalent about him coming out in favor of marriage equality prior to the election.
What I do know is that Obama being reelected is significantly more important than him supporting gay marriage today. A victory means four more years of Americans becoming comfortable with the idea of their LGBT friends and family members marrying. It means fair-minded Supreme Court justices, who may well have more impact on this issue than any president. It results in almost half a decade of unbridled and irreversible cultural change, while watching polls in support of same-sex marriage approach sixty percent.
I also know that this is the last time we will ever have this debate. Vice President Joe Biden’s comments in favor of marriage on Meet the Press, combined with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s seal of approval, signals that the debate is over in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. This is even more apparent when one considers that party elders, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have endorsed gay marriage. Both are not only former presidents, but committed Christians, which essentially gives Democrats of faith permission to vote their consciences.
It is simply unfathomable that a serious Democratic candidate in 2016 would split hairs and disingenuously claim they believe in full equality, while denying loving same-sex couples the right to marry. That dismissive strategy may have worked when only candidates with little chance of winning, such as Dennis Kucinich, championed the cause. But the equation is changed when leading Democratic contenders, such as Joe Biden, have embraced genuine equality.
After November, any Democrat with presidential ambitions who claims he or she is still evolving will be an unelectable dinosaur.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”