Of the many hollow critiques offered by President Barack Obama's rivals, one of the hollowest is the snide charge — from opponents of same-sex marriage — that on the issue of same-sex marriage, "the president's position, as it sits today, is the same position as Mitt Romney's," as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on Monday.
Yeah, right. On one issue where Obama waffles, Romney — the ultimate waffler — agrees.
The comparison is technically false. Neither of them supports same-sex marriage now, but while Romney supports the federal Defense of Marriage Act — which lets states without same-sex marriage disregard legal same-sex marriages from other states — Obama opposes it.
And it's also untrue in spirit. Obama signed the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," which stands as the biggest-ever nationwide gay civil rights advance. And while he has disappointed supporters with his "evolving" stance on same-sex marriage, the DADT repeal can't be underplayed. It was the president's deft touch on that issue — unlike his heavy hand on some others — that helped it ultimately pass without controversy.
But when Vice President Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday and said that he's "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage, it showed just how untenable the president's same-sex-marriage hedge has become. For Obama, the issue carries political risk. But so does maintaining the "same position" as the habitually pussyfooting Romney.
Gays and Lesbians
Same-sex marriage is the civil rights issue of our time. And though Obama didn't choose the issue, it chose him. As president, he's responsible for protecting equal rights, even for a minority group that's relatively small in number.
A two-thirds majority of young voters support gay marriage; they only know a world where gays and lesbians — even when they aren't always accepted — are part of everyday life.
Older voters are more skeptical of same-sex marriage, but across the political spectrum, everyone favors showing some backbone. Even voters who don't support same-sex marriage — or Obama — can see someone taking a stand. If the president waits until fall — or the start of a second term — he won't get much credit for standing up on the issue.
Last weekend the Obama campaign unveiled its new slogan: "Forward." And though it's really meant as shorthand for "Things are tough, but they could have been worse, and they're gonna get better" — the deal is that if you go with "Forward" as your slogan, you ought to move forward, including on same-sex marriage.
The Right Thing
And, of course, it's the right thing to do. Gay marriage is now legal in six states plus the District of Columbia, and as time passes on, that number will only move "Forward."
Plus, the issue gives Obama a chance to reprise the optimistic themes in his widely heralded March 2008 "A More Perfect Union" speech, in which he brought the nation together with his exposition on the state of American race relations. If he gave a speech —maybe "A More Perfect Same-Sex Union"— he could explain why he has hesitated to support gay marriage and why he supports it now. This is what he could say:
My generation came of age in a world where gays and lesbians stayed in the closet. In recent years, they've courageously come out and lived their lives openly but still don't have the right to marry. Now it's time to recognize that you don't have to personally favor same-sex marriage to accept that the American value of equal treatment under the law means that everyone should have that legal right — and that the hopes and dreams of same-sex married couples don't come at the expense of anyone else's hopes and dreams.
More and more, people from every walk of life — regardless of color, creed or orientation — work together, go to school together and fight together under the same proud flag. This is the America that we want.
And this time around, it's been the younger generation — and the perpetually young vice president — who've helped older folks like me come to see that whether a marriage is between a man and a woman, between two men or between two women, every American ought to be able to live and love as he or she chooses.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.