Does Obama Secretly Support Gay Marriage?

Writing in the Washington Post last weekend, James Kirchik pointed out a phenomenon about which I hadn't previously thought. He noted that many liberals ...
by | August 7, 2009

Writing in the Washington Post last weekend, James Kirchik pointed out a phenomenon about which I hadn't previously thought. He noted that many liberals believe that, contrary to his public statements, President Obama supports gay marriage in his heart:

This trust in covert backing from liberal elected officials is an article of faith among most supporters of same-sex marriage. In a recent interview with Newsweek, gay playwright Tony Kushner spoke of Obama's secret belief in the righteousness of same-sex marriage as if it were painfully obvious. "Pbbbht! Of course he's in favor of gay marriage!" Kushner exclaimed. His views were echoed by Steve Hildebrand, a gay political consultant who served as Obama's deputy national campaign director. "I do believe that in his heart he will fight his tail off until we've achieved full equality in the gay community," he told journalist Rex Wockner. I've lost track of the number of liberal friends and acquaintances, gay and straight alike, who assure me that Obama "really" supports same-sex marriage and, furthermore, that this point is obvious.

Kirchik scorns this view, stating that, despite a questionnaire in 1996 in which Obama offered support for gay marriage, there is nothing recent to suggest Obama's views are any different than the ones he has stated publicly. "But there is nothing in his record since he became a national political figure that should give them any reason to think he will revert to his supposedly pro-gay-marriage position."

While I think reading Obama's mind on gay marriage is more the role of psychics, there is evidence that liberal (or even moderate) Democrats who say they oppose gay marriage don't actually mean it. For that, you have to look to state politics.

Consider this exchange between Democrat John Lynch and Republican Craig Benson in a 2004 New Hampshire gubernatorial debate, as reported by the Associated Press:

"I believe a marriage is between one man and one woman," Benson said.

Lynch agreed with the definition but said he did not support discrimination against gays.

"I'm opposed to gay marriage ... but I'm also opposed to discrimination," he said.

Or, consider that as a congressman John Baldacci voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman under federal law. When he ran for governor of Maine in 2002, the Portland Press Herald noted "... a spokeswoman for him said Tuesday he does not support recognizing same-sex unions or legalizing same-sex marriages."

Or, consider what the Des Moines Register reported about Chet Culver when he was running for governor of Iowa in 2006: "Iowa's secretary of state, opposes gay marriage but says a constitutional amendment is unnecessary."

This year, Lynch and Baldacci signed bills to legalize same-sex marriage in their states. Since the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in April, Culver (while still saying he thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman) has opposed all efforts to reverse the decision.

One interpretation of these events is that the governors simply changed their minds. Over time, more Americans have shifted to supporting gay marriage. It's not surprising that more politicians have started to support gay marriage too.

But, are we to believe that Baldacci and Lynch changed their views at the precise moment that the bills landed on their desks? When the legislatures in Maine and New Hampshire passed their legislation, no one knew whether the governor would sign it.

Another interpretation is that in each of these instances the governor waited to show support for gay marriage until the point when his stand would actually have an impact. They saw political dangers in favoring same-sex marriage, so, until gay marriage was a real possibility, why take the risk? That may have been what these governors (as well as dozens of state legislators in their states) were thinking.

Does this second interpretation apply to Obama? Maybe, maybe not. When he actually had a chance to make a difference on the issue, Obama did announce his opposition to Prop. 8 in California last year (albeit more tepidly than many gay rights supporters would have liked), effectively coming down on the side of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, Obama does occupy an office where he could make an impact by, for example, pushing more forcefully for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Regardless of what you think about Obama, though, the broader point appears to be true. More Democratic politicians (and maybe more Republican politicians too) favor gay marriage than will admit it, until they're forced to actually weigh in on the matter. That's what I'll think, anyways, until a Democratic governor vetoes a gay marriage bill.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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