May 14, 2012 8:35 pm
As conversions go, last week’s declaration by President Barack Obama that he supported gay marriage was unsurprising. When Mr Obama stuck to the view that his position on the issue was “evolving”, everyone took that to mean he did not think it was worth the risk. Now he clearly does. And he may well be right: roughly half of Americans now support gay marriage; after last week many of them will feel enthused enough to back him in November.
Likewise, the politics of Mitt Romney’s call for a constitutional amendment upholding marriage between “one man and one woman” was predictable. In what will probably be a close election, both need to shore up the enthusiasm of their bases. There is certainly clear blue sea between their positions. And yet, it is regrettable that an issue that ought to be one of conscience – rather than driven by party – will once again turn into an electoral football.
To be sure, the tide is moving in the direction of equality on marriage – and rightly so. Given that the US is a secular state, this is also inevitably political. Gays seek equal rights under the law. Some US states, such as Mr Romney’s Massachusetts, already provide this, but only a minority. The federal government does not recognise these unions and, under the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act, does not oblige other US states to do so. Many still do not recognise same-sex marriage. Only last week, North Carolina voted strongly against it.
Given how polarising this is, it seems unlikely there will be a new federal law on the subject any time soon. But given also the tide of US public opinion, which has moved from hostility to acceptance in a short period, it does not seem to be the most pressing issue of our times. There are many things at stake in the 2012 election. Gay marriage should not be high on the list.
Alas, both nominees are proving all too ready to seize on “wedge” issues to pep up enthusiasm among an indifferent electorate. Polls show that voters are overwhelmingly concerned about the state of the American economy. They deserve a substantive debate on this. Instead, what they are likely to see is a “get out the vote” operation in which both candidates micro-target small demographic slices in swing states in the hope of tipping the advantage. Let us hope that both candidates will squarely address the challenges that red states and blue states – and not just swing states – have in common.
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