What The Rest of Us Can Learn From Impatient Gay Activists

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Politicians respond to money, poll numbers, electoral strategy, and constant pressure from demanding supporters who care about results.

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Everything I've ever written in support of gay marriage has been influenced by Andrew Sullivan, whose pioneering work on the subject ranks -- alongside his opposition to torture -- among his best professional moments in a storied career. For that reason, I enjoyed his Newsweek essay on Barack Obama's newly announced support for gay marriage, despite the dubious headline and hyperbolic praise of the president. The essay is at its strongest as it makes the case that the Obama Administration has accomplished a lot of consequential reforms that benefit gays and lesbians: the end of the HIV travel ban and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the decision that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution, advocacy for gay rights abroad, and ultimately support for full marriage equality. Obama is owed credit for taking all of these positions.

But there is a tension in Sullivan's essay. At first, he acknowledges that Obama had to be pushed into these gains. "Yes, he was bounced into it by Joe Biden, the lovable Irish-Catholic rogue who couldn't help but tell the truth about his own views on TV," he wrote. He continued (emphasis added):

There was, of course, cold politics behind it. One in six of Obama's fundraising bundlers is gay, and he needs their money. Wall Street has not backed him financially this year the way it did in 2008. A few Jewish donors have held back over Israel. And when Obama announced recently that he would not issue an executive order barring antigay discrimination for federal contractors, the gay donors all but threatened to leave him high and dry. The unity and intensity of the gay power brokers--absent in the defensive crouch of the Clinton years--proved that FDR's maxim still applied: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

There's more:

If money was one factor making the move necessary, the youth vote--essential to his demographic coalition and overwhelmingly pro-marriage equality--clinched the logic of it. The under-30s were looking worryingly apathetic, especially compared with 2008... Obama advanced his key strategy to winning in the fall: to make this a choice election. If it is a choice election, he wins. If it is a referendum on the last four years of economic crisis, he could lose.

And finally, "The latest Gallup poll... offered another incentive."

That analysis reflects healthy skepticism. And it gives pro gay marriage activists their due: whatever Obama's "true position" on the issue, the politics had to be right before he'd take action, so everything from moneyed gays to shifting public opinion to electoral strategy to unity among "gay power brokers" mattered. As the essay proceeds, however, Sullivan abandons that realism.

"This was not an aberration. It was an inevitable culmination of three years of work [by Obama]," he begins. "He did this the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game."

Sullivan then he starts to criticize the people who showed skepticism of Obama on gay issues. "He endured a hazing by gay activists and writers (including me) on his slow pace on gays in the military," Sullivan writes. "But we were wrong."

A bit later, he writes:

He fooled most of us much of the time, our outbursts often intemperate -- I went on CNN at one point to say that the president had betrayed the gay community on the military ban. We snarked about the "fierce urgency of whenever." Our anger built. And sometimes I wonder if he goaded us into "making him do it." If he did, it worked.

Early in the essay, gay rights advocates were credited for forcing Obama's hand. By the last section, it's Obama who is credited for masterfully manipulating activist gays into pressuring him.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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