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Washington’s Muteness on Prop 8 a Sign of Cynicism, Not Progress

Peter King, an idiosyncratic and bellicose Republican Congressmen from Long Island, has been one of the few politicians in either party willing to speak on the record about gay marriage in the wake of Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling on Proposition 8 this Wednesday. As he revealed in an interview with Politico, King thinks his party no longer has any need to use gay rights as a wedge issue — not when they have immigrants to pick on instead:

King, the Long Island congressman, said that in terms of social issues, the raging controversy over the Arizona border laws is providing more than enough ammunition for Republicans in key districts.

“The Arizona immigration law is there, there’s no reason to be raising an issue of gay rights” as a wedge, he said.

Congratulations, gays! You’re no longer the dweebiest kid on the playground. Republicans will be beating up on Manuel, whose parents just moved here from Mexico, instead. And when they get done with him, there’s Faisal, whose father wants to build a mosque. At best, you’re third in the pecking order. You’re not even on the short list any more, frankly. But don’t get too full of yourselves. If the economy improves, you could be facing another round of noogies and swirlies all over again.


Of course, cynicism over gay rights is nothing new in Washington. Did the Bush administration, for example, which arguably used gay marriage ballot initiatives to propel themselves to victory in Ohio and other key swing states in 2004, ever really have a deep ideological commitment to the issue? It seems unlikely, now that the admirable Laura Bush has spoken in support of gay rights, and Dick Cheney has, more or less, as well.

But Republicans hardly have a monopoly on cynicism over the issue. Barack Obama’s stance against gay marriage, which he re-affirmed this week, has become utterly incoherent. Hillary Clinton, who was generally prefered to Obama by gays and lesbians in the 2008 Democratic primaries, has taken an equally ambiguous position. The same went for John Edwards, who was purportedly running to both candidates’ left. The Democrats’ 2004 nominee John Kerry, among the most liberal senators from perhaps the nation’s most liberal state, supported an amendment to his state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, which had been authorized by Massachusetts courts in 2003. But, as in the case of the Bushies, Democrats who have retired from office have suddenly found it in them to support gay marriage. Al Gore did so in 2008; Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, did so last year.

Being in contact with gay people as friends, co-workers or family members is a major predictor of support for gay rights. And Washington, D.C. is teeming with gay people. If it were a state, it would be the gayest in the country, according to statistics inferred from Census Bureau data. As a city, it trails only San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Sacramento (?!?), Portland and Denver. There are innumerable gay chiefs-of-staff, press secretaries, lobbyists, strategists, spokespeople, party leaders, television bookers, social coordinators, ambassadors, journalists, activists, thinktankers, and pretty much everything else — the sort of people who grease the wheels of official and unofficial Washington. There are, of course, a fair number of gay Congressmen and Senators, some of them “out” and many of them not.

Most politicians, moreover, are well-to-do and highly educated — and few are terribly religious, whatever pretense they might make for the cameras. Most of them have spent their careers in large, urban areas, and many have traveled abroad. All of these variables also correlate with support for gay marriage. Does anyone really believe, in a country that is becoming close to evenly-divided on gay marriage, that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Kerry are among the half who oppose it? Does anyone really believe that of Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, who ran progressive technology companies in gay-friendly Silicon Valley?

The muted reaction to Wednesday’s Proposition 8 verdict is understandable, for Machiavellian political reasons. If the country is divided about 55/45 on gay marriage, as it now appears to be, the negative intangibles attendant to going after the issue — voters from the far right end of the political spectrum to the far left regard it as a distraction from more pressing matters like the economy — might well outweigh any narrow political gain. Perhaps in a way this is a sign of progress: if the divide were more like 65/35, as it was a few years ago, the calculus might well be different.

But if this does reflect progress of sorts, it is progress which has come entirely in spite of Washington. On the one hand, gay rights are but one of any number of peripheral “values” issues — flag-burning, English-only education, drug legalization, labor organizing rights, the Second Amendment — that circulate like unclaimed luggage on the airport baggage carousel, usually blending in with the scenery, but always there for the picking for a politician who is sufficiently bored or opportunistic.

On the other hand, as compared with most of these issues, it allows for very little middle ground. Gay marriage is either immoral or it is a civil right; that’s, in essence, what Judge Walker’s decision concluded. Even abortion permits considerably more room for ambiguity; about one in five Americans under the age of 30 is now pro-life and pro-gay marriage.

Gay marriage is just the sort of issue, in other words, on which politicians ought to be able to articulate clear and honest positions. But few of them bother to do so, and little is more revealing of the callousness of their enterprise. Forget “San Francisco values”; it is Washington’s which are most in question.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.