Joe Biden, Barack Obama and the value of strategic ambiguity in the gay marriage debate

7th May 2012

It’s not often that a Joe Biden gaffe becomes a Joe Biden verity. But that’s what happened over the weekend when the vice-president appeared to endorse same-sex marriage.

Of course, with Biden, the statement in question involved the usual caveats and evasions, as when he said last year that, “the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy” (never has so much been invested in the phrase “per se.”)

Asked by NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press” if his views on marriage equality had “evolved,” Biden responded that, “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”

Read with painstaking literalness, Biden’s statement is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage, as some gay rights activists triumphantly claim. It’s rather more like an expression of agnosticism. The Vice President merely said that he is “comfortable with the fact” that gay people are getting married in various states and that they are receiving the same rights.

But even this basic observation by Biden doesn’t present the full picture. While it’s true that gay couples in states like New York, Massachusetts and Iowa receive the same rights provided by those states as straight couples, they are still denied over 1,000 benefits provided by the federal government, thanks to the fact that the Defense of Marriage Act remains on the books.

That’s no small-thing for same-sex couples in which one of the partners is a foreign national. While the path to U.S. citizenship is easy for a foreign man or woman who marries an American of the opposite gender, there is no such advantage given to the same-gender partners of American citizens, regardless of whether they are legally married. That is because immigration is a federal issue, and, on the federal level, a same-sex marriage performed by a state government is next to meaningless.

Nonetheless, it should be fairly obvious what Biden was doing: Signaling to the administration’s activist gay supporters that he agrees with them in his heart, yet, due to political exigencies, cannot fully verbalize this support from his lips, much less act on that support with the power he has.

But here’s the crucial point that all those pitching a fit about the administration’s “confusion” need to absorb:

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter where the President or the Vice President stand on marriage equality. Marriage is a state issue, or, at least, should be, were it not for the fact that the Defense of Marriage Act remains law — and were it not for the fact that some Republicans want to write discrimination into the Constitution via a Federal Marriage Amendment.

On this score, the administration is doing what gay activists have demanded: It opposes any attempt to revive the FMA. It opposes state-level constitutional amendments banning gay marriage (while hesitating to endorse gay marriage on a state-by-state level). And it has instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law (signed by that hero of gay rights, Bill Clinton) which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex unions.

Still, gay activists urge the President to express support for gay marriage. While such support would be welcome, whatever benefits might accrue from it are probably not worth the risks — at least now.

Same-sex unions are a divisive topic in most of the crucial swing states — the sort of cause that culture warriors in the GOP easily seize upon to portray the President as a radical leftist out to destroy one of civilization;s most fundamental institutions. Do gays really believe that a presidential speech articulating support for marriage equality would significantly alter the national discussion and change that many hearts and minds?

For most of those who care deeply about the issue, same-sex marriage is visceral: Either one supports legal parity for gay people as a matter of fundamental fairness, or one thinks that it is the first step in the destruction of the family. There isn’t that much middle ground in this debate, which is unfortunate.

People like Obama, who support all of the same legal rights — including federal ones — for gay couples, yet who balk at bestowing the term “marriage” on these unions, do not deserve to be labeled “bigots” or “cowards.” For most Americans, gay marriage is simply something that is not a priority. Gays might find this lack of passion for what they’ve termed America’s “last civil rights struggle” narrow-minded, but that just means they need to do a better job convincing Americans of its importance.

As for the rest of the country, it’s probably where Joe Biden is: They oppose discrimination but are hesitant to embrace wholesale change on something that’s so visibly a part of the culture. A man perennially mocked for his lack of clarity, the Vice President’s ambiguity is just right.

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