Making Calculations, Making History

One of the truly interesting things about the reaction to the president’s announcement of support for same-sex marriage (sorry if it annoys anyone that I’m writing about this yet again, but it is the dominant story of this week, affecting nearly every other political “story”), particularly among those who were pleased with it, is the constant alteration between narratives emphasizing its highly tactical and perhaps even accidental nature, and narratives placing it as extraordinarily important–even magnificent–from the perspective of history. This is particularly noticeable among LGBT writers, who often seem to pause in the midst of analyzing the event dispassionately or even cynically, to marvel at how it has affected them.

The latest effort to combine these different perspectives is from Jonathan Rauch at TNR, who specifically compares Obama’s trajectory on civil rights for LGBT folk with LBJ’s on civil rights for African-Americans:

When he first campaigned for the White House, Barack Obama vowed to be a fierce advocate for gay rights, but it hasn’t always been clear if he intended to keep his promise. Indeed, we gay folks had gotten used to grousing about the President. We noticed the way he dragged his feet after promising to repeal the ban on military service; we felt betrayed when his Justice Department insisted, as George W. Bush’s had done, that gays have marriage equality already, because we can already marry someone of the opposite sex….

[I]t’s now clear that the Obama administration has quietly accumulated an impressive and unprecedented record on gay rights. Indeed, with his health-care reform bill in jeopardy of being overturned by the Supreme Court or repealed by a future Congress, there’s a real possibility that his efforts for gay equality will prove to be his most enduring legacy. The history books may remember Obama for doing for gays what Lyndon Johnson did for African Americans: Leading his party across a bridge to an irrevocable position on civil rights….

Obama’s gay-marriage conversion smacks of conviction, not convenience. Waiting until after the election would have been politically safer, but if Obama loses in November, as he knows he might, a historic opportunity to speak out for justice could have slipped away. President Clinton has said he regrets having signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Obama seems to have decided not to repeat the error….

After observing that Obama’s assumption of political risk on marriage equality can’t really compare with LBJ’s on civil rights, which is still affecting both major parties, Rauch concludes:

Still, Obama has claimed for himself a place in gay history not unlike LBJ’s place in black history. He is the first U.S. president to put the federal government unequivocally on the side of full equality for gay Americans, and he will almost surely be the last Democratic president to have opposed full equality. For his party, for its liberal base, and possibly for the country, there is no going back. He has crossed the bridge from Selma.

I’d observe that this isn’t the first, or second, time that a complicated progressive politician took a historic step in a calculated way from what might be at least partially interpreted as mixed motives. The Emancipation Proclamation, after all, contradicted years of prior statements by Lincoln that he never intended, even after the beginning of war, to tamper with slavery in its southern homeland. He got to his ultimate position in no small part, moreover, because he was convinced it would help win the war. But he also knew he was making history, and did.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.