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Obama’s Divisive Unity

Senator Barack Obama has announced his opposition to a California ballot measure that would ban same-sex marriages–a decision that was forced on the citizens of California by the state’s Supreme Court. In a letter expressing his support for extending “fully equal rights and benefits to same-sex couples under both state and federal law,” Obama wrote that he opposes “the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.”

Why is it that Obama, who promises to be “post-polarizing” figure, is using this issue to attack the motivations and integrity of those with whom he disagrees? This is the embodiment of the kind of politics we were told Obama stands against. If Obama believes same-sex unions are the right position, let him make his arguments. But to portray those who want to preserve the traditional meaning of marriage–particularly in response to an imperial court’s efforts to reshape our culture–as “divisive and discriminatory” is itself divisive and deeply unfair. It is an effort to sideline an important discussion of the issue by branding the advocates of traditional marriage as bigoted.

With each passing day, it seems, the original conceit of the Obama candidacy–that he is an agent of “change” who will “turn the page” on the “old politics” and act as a uniquely unifying figure in American politics–looks more and more absurd. He turns out to be an exceptionally skilled and ambitious politician who uses the old playbook even as he pretends to have discarded it. It’s a neat trick if you can get away with it.

On a substantive level: Senator Obama now opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton; the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and an effort by the citizens of California to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We will see if the McCain campaign deems this issue worthy of debate and their attention–and if so, whether, and to what degree, this issue helps or hurts Obama. He has now taken a position that strikes me as fairly extreme: same-sex marriages ought to be imposed by the courts, even if the citizens of that state object–thereby making an already-contentious social issue even more contentious. (One of the reasons abortion has been such a disruptive and unsettled issue in American politics is that the Supreme Court, in manufacturing a “fundamental right” to abortion, decided it was a topic in which the will of the people and their representatives was simply irrelevant.) And if the citizens of California, or any other state, attempt to restore marriage to its time-honored definition, they are not merely wrong; they are by definition agents of division and discrimination.

In a debate in which all sides should make an extra effort to argue in a calm and reasonable way, this is ugly stuff. Welcome to the Obama campaign 2008.



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