WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 13: People attend a bill signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Respect for Marriage Act will codify same-sex and interracial marriages. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
As I watched President Joe Biden sign the historic marriage equality law last week, his latest of many legislative achievements, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much American culture has changed during the past quarter-century.
Sometimes the long arc of history does bend toward justice.
Those of us with MAGA PTSD, benumbed as we’ve been by years of bad news, should savor this moment to celebrate something good. Because, not so long ago, the Respect for Marriage Act – which creates federal protections for same-sex couples and outflanks the Supreme Court’s theocrats – was unthinkable, unimaginable, and undoable.
As recently as 1996, Gallup’s pollsters reported that only 27 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. That same year, President Clinton read the tea leaves and signed an anti-gay bill, passed by a Republican Congress with solid bipartisan support, that defined marriage as a bond of man and woman, banned federal recognition of gay marriages, and permitted states to ban recognition of gay couples wedded elsewhere.
Clinton was intent on crafting a centrist image for his re-election race, and in 1996, the centrist stance on gay marriage was staunch opposition. Not only did Clinton sign the bill, he even bragged about it in radio campaign ads (“President Clinton has fought for our values, and America is better for it”).
Eight years later, on the eve of George W. Bush’s reelection bid, the anti-gay vibes were still so strong that Karl Rove, his political swami, had a brilliant brainstorm. Rove wanted gin up 2004 turnout among Christian evangelicals who, in his calculations, had been insufficiently enthused when W. eked out his first win in 2000. And what better way to drive evangelicals to the polls than to put anti-gay marriage referenda on the ballots in 11 states – most notably Ohio, a swing state back then.
As numerous political science scholars have since determined, those referenda (which warned that scary gay marriage would sink western civilization) helped attract an outsized number of evangelical voters – particularly in pivotal Ohio, where some analysts even believe that the heftier base turnout was pivotal in putting Bush over the top in 2004. That’s precisely what a “wedge” issue was designed to do.
But today in the 2020s, there’s no way Republicans would even consider such a stunt – because, as former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon quipped quite some time ago, “The wedge has lost its edge.” Campaigning against equality has become an artifact from an intolerant era.
A major shift in public sentiment was clear 10 years ago when Barack Obama ran for reelection. In the Gallup poll, support for gay marriage cleared 50 percent for the first time. President Obama signed legislation allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, and he paid no political price. Then, in the spring of 2012, his vice president – Joe Biden – declared on “Meet the Press” that he favored federal protection for gay marriage, essentially forcing Obama’s hand. They paid no political price for that either, winning reelection in November.
Today, of course, there’s still some shrill resistance to marriage equality – Fox News’ Laura Ingraham baselessly says that the new law weakens religious people’s freedoms, while talk show agitator Matt Walsh says that conservatives who favor marriage equality are “stupid pansies” – but the naysayers and homophobes are outliers. A quarter century after Gallup said that only 27 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, that stat has soared to 71 percent.
Can anyone name another issue on which public sentiment has changed so swiftly? This particular culture war battle is over.
It’s easy to understand why – the generation that has come of age since 1996 thinks it’s common sense to let people marry those they love. Gay people increasingly live openly and share their lives with straight friends and family – and how fitting it was that Joe Biden, a 10-year marriage equality advocate, wielded the signing pen.
As President Lyndon Johnson said on the eve of his battle for civil rights, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
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