Well, it finally happened. America looks to be slowly joining the growing number of nations that allow same-sex marriage. Now, I'll spare you my regular "it's about damn time" argument, complete with moral positions regarding equal treatment, freedom and the like. Of course I'm ecstatic that President Barack Obama looks to have taken the first step toward softening the official federal stance against marriage for gays and lesbians present in the retrogressive Defence of Marriage Act. By refusing to defend DOMA, Obama is now saying what so many have been for so long -- DOMA is nothing more than legislative gay-bashing that clearly seeks to treat gay Americans differently from straight ones, likely in violation of the equal protection clause in the American Constitution. But my cynicism senses are tingling. Why is Obama doing this now?
Political calculations are tricky. Of course it could be that Obama actually had a change of heart and is now beginning to follow a more progressive stance that, frankly, is pretty commonsensical. It's unquestionable that a couple married in New York State shouldn't be treated differently if they move to California. But why didn't he see that before? From the timing, this has all the looks of a political trap set by Obama and the Democrats.
With his base beleaguered by emboldened conservatives at both the state and federal levels, labour unions and social programs, the core of Democratic Party politics are under siege in many ways for the first time in over 70 years. With Congress budget disagreements in full no-holds-barred demagoguery mode, now is the time to split the new Republican majority. That is what the refusal to defend DOMA is really about.
The 2010 midterm elections changed the balance of power in partisan American politics, but they also changed the balance of power inside the parties. With moderates fleeing the Democratic banner for the Republican one in battleground states all over the union, Tea Party Republicans were the largest beneficiary. Socially retrogressive, fiscally conservative and not lacking in get-up-and-go, they have been asserting themselves in Congress, often to the frustration of the Republican leadership. Obama is betting that he can force out the crazies in the Tea Party caucus in Congress to delegitimize the Republican majority there and draw moderates back to the Democrats.
This is one hell of a gamble. Although polls show that Americans are much more tolerant of homosexuality and homosexual families than ever before, it is by no means certain that this issue will work for Democrats the way that they hope. Thirty-one states have held public referenda on same-sex marriage and it has been defeated every single time. Even solidly Democratic states like California have voted against it.
The real target, in my mind, must be the Tea Party. Obama is betting that Michelle Bachmann and her cronies will overreact to his refusal to defend DOMA and go into full "we're stuck in the 19th Century mode" thus alienating moderates in key states. This is a definite possibility. Just look at Bachmann's recent rant about breast pumps and the nanny state. After the government announced that breast pumps would be considered tax deductible, Bachmann went on TV denouncing "government overreach" and said, "I don't need the government to buy breast pumps." Betraying her complete lack of understanding of government policy and the fact that providing tax deductions is nothing at all like a subsidy, Bachmann hurt both herself and the Tea Party at large. Ordinary Americans just can't get upset about an innocuous decision to add breast pumps to an already long list of tax deductible medical equipment. Obama and the Democrats are betting that gay marriage is equally inoffensive to the majority of Americans. I'm not so sure.
Karl Rove's strategy for George W. Bush's 2008 election was to bring as many reliably Republican evangelical Christians to the polls as possible by encouraging local party organizations to put social issues on the ballot in battleground states, thus driving up Republican turnout. It worked. Now Obama is betting that enough Americans have changed their mind about gay rights that this issue can act as a wedge against a resurgent Republican party and strengthen his own base. Only time will tell, but one thing I'm pretty sure about is that betting on a more tolerant, forward thinking America is an increasingly dubious proposition.