Obama and marriage: The arc of the moral universe is pretty bloody slow

Barack Obama, who ran for President in 2008 with a position on same-sex marriage that would have got him called a member of the Harper Conservatives’ social conservative wing if he were Canadian, has “evolved” until he now supports equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

A lot of the commentary over his decision is ecstatic. A lot of the news coverage is, well, awkward. Is this how one makes a principled decision these days?

As described by several aides, that quick decision and his subsequent announcement in a hastily scheduled network television interview were thrust on the White House by 48 hours of frenzied will-he-or-won’t-he speculation after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. all but forced the president’s hand

Advisers say now that Mr. Obama had intended since early this year to define his position sometime before Democrats nominate him for re-election in September. …

Initially Mr. Obama and his aides expected that the moment would be Monday, when the president was scheduled to be on “The View,” the ABC daytime talk show, which is popular with women. Certainly, they thought, he would be asked his position on same-sex marriage by one of the show’s hosts, who include Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.

Yet the pressure had become too great to wait until then, his aides told him; on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, was pummeled with questions from skeptical reporters…

And so it was that Mr. Obama on Wednesday afternoon sat down in the White House with ABC’s Robin Roberts…

Why, it’s Lincolnesque, isn’t it?

In fact, no. As a few furious observers are pointing out, Obama’s stance on marriage and federalism is actually reminiscent of the guy Lincoln debated in 1860, Stephen Douglas, who argued that whatever one might think of slavery, it should be left to states to settle for themselves. Lincoln fought a war in defence of the counter-argument, as you may recall.

This is Barack Obama, who has made a habit of coming as close as he can to being an embarrassment for liberals before finally tacking, as tepidly as possible, in their direction. A lot of the celebration for the President’s new position, to the extent the word “position” should even be used to dignify it, makes me queasy in the same way I get queasy when Canadians talk about how proud they were when Paul Martin passed same-sex marriage legislation. It took a year longer to pass that legislation that it was going to, because Martin played silly games with the Supreme Court marriage reference (and if you don’t like that link to a conservative site, here’s a link to a gay-rights site calling the same bluff in the same language) in an attempt to ensure that his big tent included Liberal MPs who hated the idea of equal marriage.  The Supremes, no fools, were not kind to that extra question when they finally delivered their opinion. I take the ex post facto lionization of Martin as a champion of same-sex rights to be revisionist or simply confused.

But then it’s not as though Jean Chrétien wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into his own support for equal marriage rights too. In 1999 his justice minister, Anne McLellan, got up in the House to assure MPs that there’d be no gay marriage in Canada if this government had anything to say about it. When Chrétien brought in the same-sex marriage bill and the Supreme Court reference, it was because his government had finally dropped its formal, legal opposition to the idea.

In some ways, we’re all Barack Obama, or at least the modest majority in both countries who support equal marriage rights is:  We all “evolved.” If same-sex marriage remains and becomes entrenched in western society, as I have long hoped it will, then future students will have a very difficult time remembering why there was supposed to be any distinction between Obama, historic progressive, and Stephen Harper, progress’s own King Canute:

One more, more general, point. We like to while away the hours in Ottawa debating whether Stephen Harper has moved the country’s political culture to the right. I’m in the “Yes he has” camp. Exhibit A would be something Jason Kenney likes to say to partisan crowds: that in 1984 the right wing in Canada was defined by Dalton Camp, Joe Clark and Bill Davis, whereas today it’s defined by, say, Jason Kenney. I think there’s something to that. But it’s also true that Jason Kenney belongs to a government that permits gay marriage and abortion on demand; endorses official bilingualism; bought General Motors; and has basically thrown in the towel in Afghanistan. Left-right analysis is not the most reliable tool sometimes.