July 8 (Bloomberg) — Looking at the news from Washington a little more than a week ago, Americanophiles in Turkey were confused: Was the U.S. moving more toward openness and tolerance or back to more fundamentalism? Were Americans following Kemal Ataturk or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
The Supreme Court ruled, barely, for gay marriage with limits. The Senate cleared immigration reform amid warnings the measure would die in the House. Across the country, states were close to banning abortions.
The picture isn’t as mixed as it appeared from Istanbul. The move to greater inclusiveness for gays, including acceptance of same-sex marriage, and a more liberal immigration policy, are on a continuum; the only questions concern timing. Abortion is different. But the swing to the right on this issue is deceptive, reflecting temporary political realities and apt to produce a backlash.
A divided Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to gay married couples. The states still may sanction or prohibit the unions. To date, 13 states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriages. There remain thorny questions such as what to do about federal spousal benefits for gay and lesbian couples living in states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal.
Opponents claim gay-marriage proponents only have support in liberal states; conservatives say they have the upper hand in most of the rest in what promise to be ferocious battles over the next few years; Oklahoma and Mississippi aren’t fertile ground for same-sex marriages.
True and misleading. First, there are a number of states — including Illinois, Hawaii and Oregon — where approval should be relatively easy in the near term.
Public opinion continues to move in the direction of more tolerance; a July 1 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll for USA Today found that 55 percent of Americans said same-sex marriage should be accorded the same recognition as traditional marriage, a record high, compared with 40 percent who said it shouldn’t. The only groups opposed were Republicans and older Americans.
With the Supreme Court victory, says Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign, gay-rights organizations are intensifying grassroots efforts in many states with an eye to victories in state legislatures or voter initiatives.
That’s the focus, but he doesn’t rule out other modes of pressure such as calling for convention boycotts in states that outlaw same-sex marriages: “Everything is on the table.”
And, he says, the legal battles will continue in search of a more sweeping Supreme Court ruling making this a Constitutional right: “Within five years we’ll have equality in all states,” he predicts.
On immigration, it’s instructive to talk to strategists of the two parties: Republicans are squirming over the House leadership threat to kill the Senate-passed bill, and Democrats are unified and exuberant. Senate Democrats unanimously supported the bill, as did 30 percent of Republicans, including some conservatives such as Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida.
A majority of the House today almost certainly supports a measure that would resemble the Senate legislation. The rationale of the Republican leadership is that it needs a majority of the majority party. Try selling that to voters, especially in the Hispanic community.
The Senate bill, which probably involved more political concessions than necessary, is a step forward and commands support from an impressive coalition: the business community, especially the high-tech industry; labor, Hispanic and civil rights groups; top current and former Republican governors; many evangelicals, and even a few right-wingers.
House Republicans will feel the heat from this diverse crowd. This isn’t a reprise of 2007; immigration reform won’t die.
Abortion is different. Both proponents and opponents sincerely believe their position is the most humanitarian. Remarkably, over the past 40 years public opinion on abortion has basically not changed, and isn’t likely to for the foreseeable future.
Most voters, few of whom decide principally on that single issue, believe abortion should be available and relatively rare. When either side stretches beyond that uncomfortable consensus, there usually is a counter-reaction.
The dozens of Republican-dominated state legislatures that are cracking down on abortion run the risk of a backlash. The restrictions proposed, in places such as Texas, would close most abortion clinics.
Ohio offers an interesting case study. The Republican governor, John Kasich, who is brimming with national ambitions, just signed a bill that makes it hard for family-planning groups to receive funding for preventive care; it also requires ultrasounds for anyone seeking an abortion, among other restrictions.
Kasich is pretty popular and a favorite to win re-election next year. Still, Democrats, who like to point out that Kasich signed the bill surrounded by a bunch of male politicians, claim that as a national candidate he would face the same heat for being insensitive to women’s concerns that the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, encountered last year.
Politically, the U.S. remains a centrist country on economic and national security matters, sometimes tilting center-right. Health care these days favors conservatives; the decision by the administration of President Barack Obama last week to postpone the employer mandate, a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act, plays into Republican charges that the whole measure is a mess.
Abortion is sui generis. Yet when it comes to issues of tolerance, such as gay rights and immigration, the U.S. continues a progressive march.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Photo: J Valas images via Flickr.com