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TNR editor: Obama's marriage equality position is a disgrace

It’s the first time that I’ve seen this historical reference to the President’s political dilemma in dealing with this social issue — President Wilson’s foot-dragging regarding women’s suffrage. And it’s a past mistake that Obama might want consider reviewing as he continues to foolishly tap dance around marriage with “god in the mix” and defenses of the status quo.

The executive editor of The New Republic, Richard Just, makes no bones about calling the chaotic position the President has taken as a disgrace.

In November 1916, The New Republic excoriated Wilson for his weak stand on the issue. During his reelection campaign, TNR wrote, Wilson had told a group of suffragists that “[h]e was with them,” even as “he confessed to a ‘little impatience’ as to their anxiety about method.” From this, the magazine concluded that the president had “at best a vague, benign feeling about [the issue], and no conviction whatever that woman suffrage was creating a national situation which called for thorough sincerity, nerve and will.”

An evasive stance on a controversial civil rights issue from a liberal president; an insistence that the issue is primarily local, rather than national, in character; a complete failure of sincerity, nerve, and will: If these things sound familiar in 2010, it is because Barack Obama is taking exactly the same approach on gay marriage.

My colleague James Downie has assembled a fascinating timeline of Obama’s statements on gay marriage over the past 14 years, stretching from 1996 to earlier this month, when the White House responded to a judge’s ruling on Prop 8 by reiterating that it opposes same-sex marriage. What the timeline shows is a pattern that can only be described as illogical and cynical. Obama argues that he is against gay marriage while also opposing efforts like Prop 8 that would ban it. He justifies this by saying that state constitutions should not be used to reduce rights. (His exact words: “I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you’re playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about.”)

Obama appears to be saying that it is fine to prohibit gay people from getting married, as long as the vehicle for doing so is not a constitution. Presumably, then, he supports the numerous states that have banned same-sex marriage through other means, without resorting to a constitutional amendment? If so, he might be the only person in the country to occupy this narrow, and frankly absurd, slice of intellectual terrain. Obama has also said he favors civil unions rather than gay marriage because the question of where and how to apply the label “marriage” is a religious one. This argument makes even less sense than his stance on state constitutions, since marriage, for better or for worse, is very much a government matter.

That’s right — this President is tangled up in a giant web of FAIL. Political fail, honesty fail, and constitutional fail.

* Does Barack Obama, as president, have an opinion on the constitutionality of those amendments than bar gays and lesbians from marrying?

* If it is up to his DOJ to weigh in, does he believe defending DOMA is a necessity?

* Does he believe that separate is equal when it comes to marriage?

* Does Barack Obama believe that the Full Faith and Credit Clause (in Article IV, Section 1 of the United States Constitution) does not apply to same-sex marriages?  It did when Loving v. Virginia was decided — a marriage license for an interracial couple became as portable state-to-state as a drivers license as a result. What about these legal marriages — not civil unions — in Iowa, Massachusetts, etc.?

This president is going to have to fish or cut bait with the cases winding their way to SCOTUS or he will be another Wilson in the history books. What an ignominious record it will be for a constitutional law professor and a man who is the product of an interracial marriage. Sad.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding