Did Joe Biden go off the reservation when he said on “Meet the Press” that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage? Not at all, according to the Obama administration and the president’s reelection campaign. After Biden’s comments, campaign strategist David Axelrod tweeted: “What VP said — that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights — is precisely POTUS’s position.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Biden’s comments were “completely consistent” with Obama’s views. Andrew Sullivan, whose 1989 New Republic cover story espousing same-sex nuptials made him a pioneer in the marriage debate, bought that spin.
I don’t. Here is what Biden said: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”
For any reasonable listener, the takeaway not only from that statement but also from Biden’s other comments in the “Meet the Press” interview is that men who want to marry men and women who want to marry men should have “the same exact rights” as heterosexual couples, primarily the right to marry.
But Axelrod and other spinners, engaging in some Catholic-school-like sentence diagramming, deconstruct Biden’s remarks this way: All he is saying is that gay couples who are legally married (in states that allow them that status) should receive the same protections as married heterosexual couples. But so does Obama, in the sense that he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriage and allows states to refuse to recognize SSMs entered into in other states. Ergo, no Biden-Obama conflict.
This is sophistry. Watch the interview with Biden -- listening to the music, not just the words -- and I think you’ll agree. You can parse the “absolutely comfortable” line the way Axelrod did, but only if you ignore Biden’s other comments, including his tribute to a a gay couple’s relationship with their adopted children. (The chief argument against gay marriage is that is bad for children.) Biden’s speech was more than the sum of its semantic parts, which is why it created a political firestorm.
Obama’s position on this subject is a mess. He wants the federal government and other states to respect a state’s decision to approve gay marriage, but he doesn’t support that decision as a matter of policy -- yet. On that core issue, his thinking is still “evolving.”