New Yorkers do not often have a chance to be proud of their politicians, but Friday’s vote to permit same-sex marriage provides a good reason for pride, gay or otherwise.
Combined with yet another disappointing, me-first performance on the issue by President Obama, Friday’s vote also offers an object lesson in the politics of courage.
New York’s rookie Gov. Andrew Cuomo deserves a lot of the credit for making his state the sixth, along with the District of Columbia, to allow gay couples to wed. But there is plenty of credit to go around. Recognition also is due the state Assembly, which long ago lined up behind the cause of marriage equality; the Republican political activists who put their money and muscle into a coalition to draw a few key votes from GOP senators; the four Senate Republicans who joined 29 of the chamber’s 30 Democrats to form Friday’s winning 33-29 majority, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and other Republicans who permitted the question to reach the floor despite their own opposition to the legislation.
Breaking with the usual Albany practice of demanding lock-step loyalty from party members, Skelos led his caucus through a nine-hour closed door session that ended with the decision to bring the bill to the floor. “The days of just bottling up things, and using these as excuses not to have votes — as far as I’m concerned as a leader, it’s over with,” Skelos told reporters.
Yet it was Cuomo’s personal commitment that forced the Legislature to reconsider the issue, which failed by a wide margin just two years ago at a time when Democrats controlled the Senate. The New York Times reported Saturday that Cuomo privately told associates equalizing marriage rights “is at the heart of leadership and progressive government.”
“I have to do this,” he added.
Leadership is exactly what Obama has lacked. The president’s stated opposition to same-sex marriage is transparently craven and politically driven. Just one day before the New York vote, Obama appeared before a group of gay Democratic political donors in Manhattan and mouthed platitudes about democracy. His administration was slow to address military anti-gay discrimination and defended the hateful federal Defense of Marriage Act before dropping its appeal of an adverse lower-court decision with the sudden pronouncement that DOMA is indefensible. The president’s spinners have put out the word that Obama’s views on gay marriage are “evolving.”
Translation: The president will back gay marriage when it no longer matters, meaning either the courts will have settled the issue or that it can no longer cost him politically. Maybe the incumbent autobiographer will again feature himself in a book timed to boost his presidential campaign. He can call it “Profiles in Self-Preservation.”
Backing same-sex marriage does not carry a lot of political dividends for anyone, even in New York. Cuomo could have counted on easy re-election in his heavily Democratic state just by getting the state’s budget, taxes and economy back on track. For the senators who changed their votes between 2009 and 2011, supporting marriage equality is going to mean trouble in next year’s balloting, especially for Republicans who could now face primary challenges. Skelos and the others in his caucus who allowed the issue to be considered will get plenty of grief from social conservatives.
But sometimes politics is not just an exercise in doing what is easy, or profitable, or expedient. It is, from time to time, an exercise in doing what is right.
New York’s politicians did the right thing last week. Though their state is not the first to arrive at the correct and historically inevitable answer on marriage, they still acted in time to set an example. Obama and his apologists ought to pay attention.