On Gay Marriage, Will Obama Take Biden’s Lead?

“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Vice President Joe Biden told NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press.” “And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”

Others do, most notably his boss, President Barack Obama. The president, surveying an election landscape in which victory may require threading a few political needles, has been disappointingly reticent on the issue -- even as Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday joined the chorus endorsing gay marriage.

The discomfort the president has professed to feel about gay marriage -- at least since entering national politics; he seemed remarkably more at ease in the 1990s -- has always seemed more political than personal. To his credit, Obama did end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military. He told Rolling Stone last month that he took time to end the ban the proper way, and it’s true that the issue was one of the administration’s most deftly handled, engendering scant political resistance despite the firestorms of yesteryear.

We hope that the president’s reluctance to engage on gay marriage is a similar matter of strategy. But as he surely knows, at some point moral questions break the bounds of calculation and come down to something more elemental: courage and commitment.

These qualities were notably absent last week with the departure of foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell from Mitt Romney’s campaign. When Grenell, a foreign policy hawk who is gay and supports same-sex marriage, came under attack from anti- gay groups in the Republican coalition, Romney failed to defend him, or even to allow him to do his job. After being sidelined, Grenell resigned. It wasn’t a great setback for gay rights. But it was a failure of politics and character that will shadow Romney’s candidacy.

In an era of ideologically consistent (and consistently polarized) parties, it is fanciful to think that Romney -- whose current campaign has disavowed a pink flier that appeared during a 2002 Pride Weekend in Massachusetts, bearing Romney’s name and endorsing “equal rights” for “all citizens” -- can buck his party on core issues. But standing up for the spokesman he had hired required only a minimal show of spine. Romney subsequently characterized Grenell as “very accomplished” -- a genial compliment, but one that only underscored his cave-in.

This battle will ultimately end, and anyone with a passing familiarity with the American story knows how. We have entered the final stage, where opponents theatrically vow to maintain segregation, or its marital approximation, now and forever.

Marriage, like every successful social institution, changes with the times. When President Obama was born, interracial marriage was prohibited in much of the nation, and public support for it registered in the low single digits. Today, in roughly one-quarter of American marriages, wives earn more than their husbands, some of whom stay home to care for children. Such arrangements -- including the 10 percent of marriages that are interracial -- are no more “traditional” than gay marriages. So what?

The advance of gay rights has been driven largely by culture, with each decade bringing new levels of empowerment. As the latest ballot measure in North Carolina suggests, the political arena has generally been a lagging indicator. President Obama can help change that dynamic by putting his moral authority squarely behind the right to marry.

Such leadership might have costs. But in this case they don’t seem overwhelmingly high. Public support for gay marriage already hovers around 50 percent. Along with the District of Columbia, six states currently allow gay marriage. If you can’t name them all, it’s probably because nothing much has happened. The moral dissolution promised by marriage opponents has yet to materialize. In its place is merely an expansion of one of the most profound, yet homely, of human rights.

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