Of Chickens and Eggs

Mike Scherer (surprisingly) has a nice synopsis of Obama’s views on gay marriage and just why Rick Warren’s involvement in his inauguration is provoking such backlash. Basically, Obama argued during the primaries that support for gay marriage is not currently a politically tenable position, but that greater equality through legal channels was promising. According to Obama, it’s more important to address the “day to day” issues — like joint filing status — than worry about the broader moral question. The theory goes that the incremental approach, acting as a sort of acclimation process, clears the way for the moral question to be addressed by a future politician without risking the so-called day-to-day issues. There’s some sense to this “take what’s there and don’t overreach” approach, and certainly, it’s the same “pragmatism” that defines Obama’s politics more generally, but that said, this issue seems a bit different than climate change or health care.

Most of the outrage stemming from Prop 8’s passing was an expressed sense of marginalization, not disappointment about the dimmed prospects of joint filing. In other words, the debate was never really about the day-to-day issues, but was always first and foremost a question of ethics. In this light, Barack Obama’s strategy of building the chicken to hatch the egg makes for good pabulum, but it seems naive to think that the moral question and the practical question are of discrete commodities. That is, addressing the practical implies the moral, but the moral question already provides for both. Think: how can one argue for the necessity of day-to-day rights without addressing why? Why engineer the chicken when the egg only needs incubation?

Now, I’m sure the issue was polled extensively, and it may be true that support for gay marriage would have created a highly exploitable wedge for Obama’s opponents. But in an election where culture generally acquiesced to economic expediency, how can we be so sure? African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8 and California voters were robocalled with a recording of Obama denying support for gay marriage. Would his leadership on this issue have provided the nudge it needed? It’s hard to know, but it’s regrettable that the egg is still there for the hatching.

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