The California decision and the presidential campaign

There are few signs of a major electoral backlash against the California Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage, but the court's opinion leaves Democrats exposed.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, War Room,

Given that the California State Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage comes in the middle of a presidential election year, the ruling could potentially have major implications for the campaign. But for the moment, the political world is fairly quiet, and statements from the three presidential campaigns — as well as additional comment to Salon provided by Barack Obama’s campaign — seem to indicate that, for the moment at least, the major players in the upcoming presidential race would like to stay away from the issue.

Republicans have, in the recent past, used court decisions like this one — and subsequent initiatives and referendums at the ballot box — to motivate their party’s base to come out and vote. They’ll most likely try the same thing in California. A coalition opposed to gay marriage had, even before the decision, already submitted more than 1.1 million signatures in favor of putting an initiative on California’s ballot this November that, if passed, would amend the state’s constitution and override this decision. But the actual value Republicans could gain from doing this in a state like California, which is dependably blue when it comes to voting for a president, seems small. And there’ll be little chance to use the California decision effectively elsewhere: There are only so many times you can have voters decide these sorts of questions, and most of the key swing states have had similar measures on their ballots during one important national election or another this decade.

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain could use some support with his party’s social and religious conservatives, and could conceivably make a play on this issue in hopes of bringing them more firmly into his campaign. But, as of right now, there’s no indication he will end up doing so. On Wednesday, previewing the likely political effects of the then-impending ruling, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote, “McCain, as you’ll recall, opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment on federalism grounds but has hinted that he might change his mind if state courts start overturning people-initiated decisions on gay rights.” Thursday’s decision did in fact overturn a law voted on directly by the people of California, offering the McCain campaign its opening, but its response was tepid. In a statement, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said, “John McCain supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution sanctioning the union between a man and a woman, just as he did in his home state of Arizona. John McCain doesn’t believe judges should be making these decisions.”



Ultimately, the major political effect might be that it paints Democrats — and especially Barack Obama, who’s looking more and more like the party’s eventual presidential nominee with every passing day — into a very tight corner. Public opinion is shifting fairly quickly on the issue, but supporting same-sex marriage is still seen as deadly to a candidate’s political aspirations. In a March 2007 Newsweek poll, 38 percent of respondents said that, by itself, a presidential candidate’s strong support for same-sex marriage would cause them to vote against that candidate. Civil unions, however, are relatively popular — or at least not dramatically unpopular — and have come to be the preferred alternative for many politicians, including Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The problem is in the way some Democrats (and on this issue, especially Obama) have justified their support for civil unions but not for same-sex marriage. The “gay debate” that LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign sponsored in August 2007 exposed the rhetorical and logical holes in some of those justifications, and Thursday’s ruling only opened those holes further by saying that civil unions do not really provide equality under the law. Though he referred specifically to conservatives, in a post he wrote Thursday, at right-wing blog Hot Air the blogger “Allahpundit” did a good job of summing up the problems inherent in arguing for civil unions instead of same-sex marriage:

[I]t leaves you with no substantive reason for drawing any distinction in the first place. Yes, (some) conservatives seem to be saying, gays can go ahead and have civil unions that grant them all the benefits married couples have — but for god’s sake, don’t let them call themselves “married.” To which a court can only reply, “Why not?”

Obama’s had a difficult time explaining his answer to that question. At the debate, he said, “[I]t is my strong belief that the government has to treat all citizens equally. I come from that in part out of personal experience. When you’re a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside. And so my concern is continually to make sure that the rights that are conferred by the state are equal for all people… my view is that we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word ‘marriage,’ which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples.”

That provoked a question from HRC president Joe Solomonese, who — referencing the landmark Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson — asked Obama, “On the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where that comes across as sounding like ‘separate but equal’?” The senator responded:

Well, look, you know, when my parents got married in 1960, ’61, you know, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South.

So obviously, this is something that I understand intimately, it’s something that I care about.

But I would also say this, that if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it’s less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on … all the legal rights that are conferred by the state…

[A]s I’ve proposed it, [civil unions] wouldn’t be a lesser thing, from my perspective. And look, you know, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I’m interested is making sure that those legal rights are available to people

The California Supreme Court’s opinion specifically rejected this sort of argument. Chief Justice Ronald George wrote:

Whether or not the name ‘marriage,’ in the abstract, is considered a core element of the state constitutional right to marry, one of the core elements of this fundamental right is the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other officially recognized family relationships. The current statutes — by drawing a distinction between the name assigned to the family relationship available to opposite-sex couples and the name assigned to the family relationship available to same-sex couples, and by reserving the historic and highly respected designation of marriage exclusively to opposite-sex couples while offering same-sex couples only the new and unfamiliar designation of domestic partnership — pose a serious risk of denying the official family relationship of same-sex couples the equal dignity and respect that is a core element of the constitutional right to marry. As observed… at oral argument, this court’s conclusion in [a previous case] that the statutory provision barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional undoubtedly would have been the same even if alternative nomenclature, such as “transracial union,” had been made available to interracial couples…

[B]ecause of the long and celebrated history of the term ‘marriage’ and the widespread understanding that this term describes a union unreservedly approved and favored by the community, there clearly is a considerable and undeniable symbolic importance to this designation. Thus, it is apparent that affording access to this designation exclusively to opposite-sex couples, while providing same-sex couples access to only a novel alternative designation, realistically must be viewed as constituting significantly unequal treatment to same-sex couples….

Second, particularly in light of the historic disparagement of and discrimination against gay persons, there is a very significant risk that retaining a distinction in nomenclature with regard to this most fundamental of relationships whereby the term “marriage” is denied only to same-sex couples inevitably will cause the new parallel institution that has been made available to those couples to be viewed as of a lesser stature than marriage and, in effect, as a mark of secondclass citizenship.

The Obama campaign has released a statement on the decision. It reads, “Barack Obama has always believed that same-sex couples should enjoy equal rights under the law, and he will continue to fight for civil unions as President. He respects the decision of the California Supreme Court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage.” Salon asked an Obama spokesman for additional comment regarding the contradiction between the sentiment expressed in the first sentence of that statement and the court’s decision; via e-mail, the spokesman said only “[Obama] continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage.”

As for Clinton’s position on the issue, this is one situation in which her reputation for being calculating and nakedly political could actually make her campaign’s job easier. In some ways, her logic on the question is as confused as Obama’s. But at that debate, she was at least honest about the situation, essentially admitting that one reason she supports civil unions, and not marriage, is because the former is politically feasible. (It’s hardly a wonderful position, but it’s an easier one for the campaign to defend, as it avoids the logical twists and turns Obama might have to make if faced with this issue on the trail.) Asked for reaction to the California decision, the Clinton campaign provided Salon with a statement that reads:

Hillary Clinton believes that gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships should have the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans and believes that civil unions are the best way to achieve this goal. As President, Hillary Clinton will work to ensure that same sex couples have access to these rights and responsibilities at the federal level. She has said and continues to believe that the issue of marriage should be left to the states.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>