A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
On both sides of the Atlantic, politics seems to have been dominated in recent days by the subject of same-sex marriage (or ‘gay marriage’ as the British media insist upon calling it). In the US, the decision to opt for Mitt Romney as the Republican contender in the 2012 Presidential race, rather than his more Conservative (and frankly a wee bit bonkers) contenders meant that the social-issues test (which Santorum had mined in the final weeks of his campaign for the nomination) has now moved back to the Democrats. As Obama toured US College campuses this week (prior to a doubling in interest rates on student loans in the fall), the issue continued to rumble on in the background. It exploded via NBC’s Meet the Press earlier today – a morning show in the US and British viewers can catch it via CNBC at 3pm each Sunday.
The main guest in a pre-recorded interview was the current Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. Biden had been in the global press this week following the release (by the US administration) of the so-called ‘Osama Papers’. These represent a small number of the documents seized as part of the bin Laden assassination raid last year. They revealed that the terrorist leader was keen that Biden should not be killed, as if he became President he would be incompetent and thus lead America astray. Osama bin Laden instead advocated an assassination attempt on the President and a high-profile military General (thus elevating Biden to the Presidency). This is important in understanding that Biden needed to demonstrate that he was a serious powerful political figure in his own right when he appeared on Meet the Press today. That he undoubtedly did with what I considered an assured performance. Yet it was his comments on the subject of same-sex marriage which caught the attention of the media and social networks.
You can see the key section of his interview in the clip below:
Biden indicated that he was ‘comfortable with same-sex marriage’, but he did walk something of a tightrope in the interview. He talked about people obtaining the same civil rights as heterosexuals – that doesn’t necessarily equate to same-sex marriage but the overall positive tone of the interview gave the strong impression that he personally would support same-sex marriage, that his views on the subject had evolved, and that the focus of the debate should be on ‘love’. He seemed a guy genuinely moved by encountering people and learning of their lived experiences. It seemed a judgement based on a human calculation rather than one arrived at after careful constitutional and legal consideration.
Obama has not been able to convey this to date – a man who is despite the rantings of some on the far right, is a centrist political figure. Obama campaign chief David Axelrod tweeted that it was the same-position as the President of the United States (thanks to Kate Sheill for alerting me to this). The tweet was aimed at NBC political correspondent Chuck Todd who can be seen on NBC’s Nightly News and who took to Meet the Press to comment on the significance of the announcement. The Advocate also immediately ran a new lead story that the VP supports same-sex marriage. In truth, both sides are kinda right. The media ran with the impression that Biden – a canny operator – gave in his interview. He did not however commit the Obama regime to moving any further forward on the same-sex marriage issue. Instead, he re-iterated the focus upon ‘rights’ (as opposed to the institution of marriage), a legal divide that Obama has clung to.
This is to take the view that marriage is about acquiring rights and responsibilities, rather than about joining an ‘institution’ (i.e marriage) per se. The Obama position is that it’s OK to have the rights, but not to join the institution (irrespective of whether the institution would like you).
So where does this leave us? The answer is ‘we’ll have to see’. The ball is now in the court of the media and Republicans. Romney could use the issue to assure Republicans that he’s Conservative enough by attacking the VP. Yet he also wants to position himself in the political centre in time for the general election in the fall. He could challenge Obama: “what’s the President’s position on this? The American people have a right to know”, although any journalist will ask him his position (thus potentially back-firing on Romney).
Obama would then come under pressure, and doesn’t want to be the guy defending same-sex marriage at this time (it would alienate some in the centre) or be the guy advocating his current half baked position (civil unions, don’t like same-sex marriage but OK if States want to do, but oops we still have DOMA which prevents that being federally recognised) as this is a position which de-motivates core Democrats. In other words, it’s a lose-lose issue for Obama but one the media may be keen to peruse. As things stand, we’ve had some interesting verbal comments, but no change in substance.
Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, this week saw local elections take place up and down the country. Liberal Democrats took another hammering and the Tories also received a pounding. Ed Milliband’s Labour party did well in the polls. Talk on election night quickly moved to stories of another ‘Rose Garden Moment’ between Nick Clegg and David Cameron as they caught to re-cement the coalition. David Cameron – it seemed to be briefed -would refocus on issues of the family, and the economy. In other words, he would throw his own supporters a bit of red meat. Nick Clegg on the other hand offered nothing to his increasingly jittery followers who must surely be questioning whether they want this man to lead them over a cliff at the next general election.
The Sunday Times led with the headline (£ link) ‘PM in retreat over gay marriage’, and the issue was raised with Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne on the Andrew Marr show this morning. Joe Biden he ain’t, and although I suspect he’s actually very sympathetic on the issue – more so than Cameron despite his public persona. Osborne ducked the issue in initial questioning and later added that measures wouldn’t be in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech (which sets out the legislative agenda for the next 12 months). A number of social media folks commented that this was hardly surprising given the consultation doesn’t end until June. I confess that my brain had short-circuited and I had (I turn red as I admit this) forgotten that the Queen’s Speech is now always in the Spring. This means that any measure on same-sex marriage won’t occur until after May 2013. We knew this before Osborne’s interview this morning and we know exactly as much afterwards.
This means that any slowing down is a misleading message to Tory back-benchers. In reality, it’s at least 12 months off and always has been. However, Osborne did have an opportunity to say that he was personally in favour, or that the government hoped that the consultation was positive, and anticipated bringing forward legislation in Spring 2012. He didn’t. Politically, he had absolutely no need to. I would have been pleased, and so would many other activists but in all probability we won’t vote for him or his party. Party groups which support same-sex marriage can equally be assured from the ST story that slowing down does not mean the ultimate destination has changed. It is in fact Cameron’s right-wing back-benchers and his Conservative Association’s across the country who will be most annoyed. An attempt to re-assure them was cynical and misleading in the extreme.
All of which probably explains why Nadine – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry – Dorries, the one-woman machine of an MP – went on the attack this afternoon by saying that gay marriage is a policy of the ‘elite’, and once again slammed same-sex marriage proposals. Dorries – divorced, and now on the rebound from a relationship with a married man – perhaps understandably seems to have something against marriage. I too am something of a sceptic, yet I don’t seek to deny rights and freedoms to a section of society because of a heady mixture of political dogma, mumbo-jumbo religion and a series of unfortunate experiences with men.
I remain of the view that same-sex marriage will be a reality during the term of this government. The question is whether it will be in 2013 or 2014. Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to offer a firmer position on this issue – to indicate that ‘all being well with the consultation’, they ‘expect’ legislation to be brought forward in 2013, because it’s ‘the right thing to do’. Their failure to do so this weekend is yet another disappointment from a leadership which seems to have lost its way.