Did Kerry waffle on gay marriage?

Imagine yourself as a politician holding the following set of beliefs:

(1) People whose erotic orientation leads them to choose life-partners of the same sex deserve to have more or less the same opportunity to form legally binding and socially and officially recognized romantic pairings as the larger number whose choices are of the opposite sex.

(2) Allowing them to do so would, on balance, be good for the majority as well, since fidelity tens to create external benefits and promiscuity tends to impose external costs, and legally protected pairings tend to promote fidelity and reduce promiscuity.

(3) Since many people would be upset, for religious or quasi-religious reasons, if those legally recognized pairings were called “marriages,” — perhaps you yourself are one of those who would be upset — it would be better, all things considered, to call them “civil unions” or some such term. The principle that the government shouldn’t unnecessarily affront some of its citizens and make them feel as if they’re strangers in their own country applies to those who are made uncomfortable by the public recognition of same-sex pairings as well as to those who want to have them recognized.

(4) Making rules about marriage and its analogues is properly the business of the states, and no federal intervention is needed.

Or imagine that you believe, instead of or in addition to (3):

(3A) Since a clear majority right now opposes the recognition of same-sex “marriage,” and since insisting on the term “marriage” now might well lead to a ban embracing civil union as well, it would be prudent for those who support legally recognized pairings to back off from the term “marriage” for now.

Then what would your position be on: the Defense of Marriage Act; FMA (the proposed gay-baiting amendment to the Constitution); and the recognition of same-sex pairings by your own state?

And how would you summarize your personal position if asked?

I think you would be against DOMA and FMA, and support civil unions but not same-sex marriages in your own state. And I think you would say that you support the idea that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Oddly enough, those are precisely the actions and words of John Kerry on this topic, as I understand them. So one interpretation of his conduct is that he has been acting consistently on some variant of the beliefs sketched above as 1-4. Of course, I don’t know that such an interpretation would be accurate, but as far as I can see there is nothing to show that it would be inaccurate, either.

So it seems to me that Michael Grunwald is wrong to write the following sentence:

He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which limited marriage to a man and a woman, but he now says marriage should be limited to a man and a woman.

The phrase “but he now says” is clearly supposed to signal that Grunwald has scored a “gotcha” by catching Kerry in an inconsistency — inconsistency being the theme of the piece — but in fact Grunwald has done no such thing, unless he thinks that no one can consistently hold any belief without wanting that belief embodied in either Federal statute or the Constitution.

The belief that some private opinions should not be made into public policy in ways that coerce others with different opinions used to be called “liberalism.” The belief that some decisions should be made by the states is still called “federalism.” I suppose that such liberal and federalist principles are what Grunwald means to sneer at when he refers later in the article to “nuance and complexity” as if they were transparent alibis for waffling.

Has simple-mindedness suddenly become some sort of virtue?

Politicians waffle, flip-flop, and lie because it is sometimes advantageous for them to do so. Journalists have a professional responsibility to call them on it. But journalists who are hypervigilant, finding inconsistency in any position too complex to fit on a bumper sticker, contribute to the infantilization of American politics. Such hypervigilance also makes mendacity and duplicity more advantageous to those politicians who practice them most assiduously, by giving the voters the impression that “they all do it.”

Since the attempt to paint Kerry as a far-out liberal will tend to run into the problem of being inconsistent with facts on the public record, (Kerry turns out to rank in the middle of the pack among Senate Democrats) we’re likely to hear a lot about his “inconsistency.” No doubt some of those charges will be true.

But the one about same-sex unions is a hummer. And it unfairly cheats Kerry of the credit he deserves for his display of political courage in voting against DOMA in 1996. That wasn’t a popular vote then, even in Massachusetts.

[Note: Of course, you could vote instead for George W. Bush, who combines an utter lack of nuance and complexity with the maximum of duplicity and inconsistency: for example, on trade, on deficits, on the assault weapons ban (which he’s for as long as it’s not actually attached to any piece of legislation that might pass), on the Department of Homeland Security, on the 9-11 Commission, on humility abroad, and on nation-building. Kos has a longer list.]

Update: William Saletan argues that Bush’s stubborn, fact-resistant dogmatism is the reality, and that therefore it’s wrong to say that Bush is also a chronic liar and flip-flopper. But this seems to me to be a mistake: contempt for fact encourages contempt for truth.

Second update Matthew Yglesias debunks some of the other charges of Kerry’s “inconsistency,” and gives an additional list of Bush flip-flops on everything from patients’ rights to campaign finance reform.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Did Kerry waffle on gay marriage?”

  1. What's Wrong with Nuance?

    Matt Yglesias has a must read article up at TAP on the accusations that John Kerry is opportunistic and inconsistent in his views. Yes, apparently Kerry supports lowering some taxes, and is opposed to lowering other taxes. If that's "nuance"

  2. Kerry and Bush flip-flops

    We're going to hear a great deal about flip-flops in the upcoming Presidential campaign. Knowing the media's proclivity for prefabricated, handy shorthand stereotypes as a frame for political reporting, political campaigns always try to define their op…

  3. Kerry and Bush flip-flops

    We’re going to hear a great deal about flip-flops in the upcoming Presidential campaign. Knowing the media’s proclivity for prefabricated, handy shorthand stereotypes as a frame for political reporting, political campaigns always try to define their op…

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