President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday of his support for gay marriage has been cast as an “evolution” of his views on gay rights. The nation, too, has been evolving. But if you look at gay rights solely in terms of the debate over political polarization, it’s a rare instance of Democrats moving sharply to the left of where they were a few years ago.
As Ezra Klein and others have pointed out, polarization has been primarily a product of Republicans moving ever further right. On taxes, we’ve seen the party move from the “temporary” Bush tax cuts of 2001 to the effort to make those tax cuts permanent and now to the Ryan budget, which would not only make the tax cuts permanent but would further reduce taxes on the wealthy while sharply cutting social spending on the poor. It’s been a steady march in one unambiguous direction.
A similar path is obvious on climate change and immigration, where the diversity of opinions among Republican politicians has steadily declined as the party adopted ever more rigid orthodoxies imposed from the right.
Democrats have changed their view on the need for financial regulation, though only in the wake of a global financial cataclysm. Their stance on a host of other major issues hasn’t changed much since Bill Clinton was president. Health care reform may be controversial, for example, but the party had been championing it for half a century before “ObamaCare” -- one of its most conservative policy incarnations – became law in 2010.
Gay marriage is different. Long-time opponents of same-sex marriage must look at the president’s endorsement in much the way an anti-handgun advocate regards the seemingly unstoppable effort to permit concealed carry of firearms in every nook and cranny of the nation. It wasn’t long ago that this all seemed completely out of bounds. The last Democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996. This president openly supports gay marriage. How did the center move -- and the issue slip away -- so quickly?
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)