The Washington Post is quick to note the soft underbelly of President Obama’s midstream decision to abandon legal support for the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In an unsigned editorial, the Post, which shares liberal objections to DOMA as public policy, points out how easily the Administration’s tactic of retreating from duly enacted law “could come back to haunt it.” The editorial cites the example of a future Republican Administration attempting to “sabotage” the Obama health care initiative by refusing to defend it.
Being hoist with one’s own petard is reportedly an unpleasant experience. While seasoned legal observers point out that the President is certainly entitled to his own view of the constitutionality of statutes – and others have underscored how the weak defense of DOMA can actually be replaced now with strong congressional involvement – the off–on, midstream character of the President’s decision here amounts to an ominous precedent that people across the political spectrum should view with concern. What is good for the geese of 2011 may appeal very much to the ganders of 2013 and beyond.
The Post concludes that the “best way” to eliminate DOMA “is to work with lawmakers to erase the law from the books.” That sentence alone underscores why the Obama Administration may be shying away from the hard work of legislative debate and persuasion. To put the matter plainly, the opponents of traditional marriage have had very limited success in engaging legislatures. The Defense of Marriage Act passed Congress in 1996 by wide margins. In the years since, nearly 40 states have passed their own versions of DOMA. Thirty-one states have held popular votes and put constitutional amendments in place to preserve man–woman marriage. Not a single state has voted down such a measure. The cumulative popular vote to date for such amendments is roughly 64 percent in favor.
In Massachusetts, a popular vote was forestalled under the commonwealth’s complex rules for such proceedings. In the District of Columbia, a legislative maneuver has blocked a popular vote favored by a majority in the city. In Maryland, where same-sex marriage is on the verge of being approved by the General Assembly and sent to the governor, a public referendum to overturn it stands a strong chance of being put on the 2012 ballot. In Indiana, the state House of Representatives voted by a margin of 70–26 last week, in a result that received little media attention, to put on the state ballot a constitutional amendment protecting marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Action in other states is mixed, but it appears possible that Maryland’s will be the only state legislature to approve redefining marriage in 2011—and that law may well prove short-lived.
The Obama Administration’s case for dropping its already-meager defense of traditional marriage is that there is simply no rational argument to be made for it. The assertion is absurd on its own terms, but it is also clearly not the view of millions of Americans in dozens of states. The very irrational argument that support for traditional marriage is akin to racial bigotry also cannot stand up to reasoned debate. Proponents of traditional marriage have never feared the people or shied away from the hue and cry of the legislative arena. The Washington Post is right on that general principle, and that is why yesterday’s announcement by President Obama is about more than one hot-button issue—it’s about the whole of our republican form of government.