What the Cheney Civil War Says About America

A testament to how rapidly popular views on gay marriage have shifted.

Many a Washington journalist has spent part of this week writing an obligatory lede about the awkward Thanksgiving dinner that awaits the Cheneys. The former vice president’s family has become an unlikely front in the culture wars.

As part of her campaign to relieve Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi of the Republican nomination, Liz Cheney told Fox News that she opposes same-sex marriage. She said of her sister Mary, who has entered into a legal same-sex marriage, that this is “just an area where we disagree.”

Mary Cheney and her wife Heather Poe were none too pleased. Mary took to Facebook to declare: “Liz—this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree you’re just wrong—and on the wrong side of history.”

Poe went even further. “I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if, as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other,” she wrote. “Yes, Liz, in fifteen states and the District of Columbia you are my sister-in-law.” (Note how cleverly the charge of carpetbagging was worked into Poe’s post.)

Maybe the Cheney sisters have always disagreed about the nature of marriage. Maybe Liz Cheney is less interested in being on the right side of history than the right side of the Wyoming opinion polls in 2014. Either way, the whole spectacle illustrates how rapidly this debate has shifted.

In 1996, support for gay marriage was a fringe position. The Defense of Marriage Act passed Congress with Democrats voting 32 to 14 in favor in the Senate, 118 to 65 in the House. Joe Biden, Paul Wellstone, and Barbara Mikulski were among the Democratic yes votes. President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

As late as 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate with a serious shot at the nomination professed to support gay marriage. That position was left to the Dennis Kuciniches of the party. Even as Senate Democrats blocked the federal marriage amendment, they assured voters they were really against gay marriage. This group not only included Harry Reid and Dick Durbin, but also Hillary Clinton.

In fact, then-Sen. Clinton went on at great length about how “the fundamental bedrock principle that [marriage] exists between a man and a woman going back into the mists of history as one of the founding foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization, and that its primary, principle role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they are to become adults.”

As Hillary almost certainly gets ready to run for president in 2016, her old views are sure to be consigned to “the mists of history.” When the Supreme Court overturned part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Clintons issued a joint statement praising the ruling—without noting their own role in passing and promoting the law.

In 2004, Mary Cheney had no problem campaigning for the reelection of her father and George W. Bush. Bush opposed same-sex marriage and supported some form of federal marriage amendment. Political observers believed at the time that these positions helped him win a second term.

Barack Obama claimed to oppose gay marriage himself until May 2012. He might have held out a little longer, perhaps until after the Democratic National Convention in September, if Biden hadn’t rushed him by talking about his own evolution on the issue in a television interview. In a 2004 debate with perennial Republican candidate Alan Keyes, Obama—then a candidate for Senate from Illinois—even denied that marriage was a civil right.

A viewpoint that was once acceptably held by the President of the United States—indeed, a viewpoint one had to hold to be elected president in the first place—is now considered rude to express in public. The Mary Cheneys who once allowed people to simultaneously support traditional marriage and avoid charges of bigotry against gays and lesbians have revoked that protection.

In the twenty-year span from the Defense of Marriage Act to the 2016 presidential election, gay marriage supporters and opponents may trade places on who is considered mainstream and who is fringe. The transformation will seem natural to most Americans who live through it, yet it won’t be totally without costs.

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