Op-ed: Exploring the Uncomfortable Difference Between Cuomo and Obama

Michelangelo Signorile discusses the differences between Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama.



 Immediately after the passage of marriage equality in New York the comparisons between Governor Cuomo and President Obama began. Andrew Cuomo promised to pass a marriage equality bill during his election campaign and fulfilled the promise just about six months after taking office—and with a Republican-controlled state Senate. Barack Obama dragged his feet on his campaign promise to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” putting it off and acting only after being heckled at events and seeing protesters chain themselves to the White House gate. And on marriage he’s been “evolving,” in a process that seems to be taking longer than the actual evolution of sea creatures to land mammals.

Within hours of the comparisons came the debunkers, mostly defenders of the president. A governor, particularly one in a fairly liberal Northeastern state, they said, couldn’t be compared to a president of a diverse and fairly conservative country. Yes, Cuomo got four Republicans on board, but unlike Obama, he doesn’t have to contend with the filibuster, which means it requires 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done. Some of the defenders also argued that Obama’s “states’ rights” stance—his contention, made once again at a press conference shortly after the marriage vote in New York, that marriage is a state issue—is correct.

“Some now want this president to be Andrew Cuomo, a heroically gifted advocate of marriage equality who used all his skills to make it the law in his state,” Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog on The Daily Beast. “But the truth is that a governor is integral to this issue in a way a president can never be. Civil marriage has always been a state matter in the U.S.”

But the debunkers are wrong, both about the states’ rights argument and in claiming that Cuomo and Obama cannot be compared.

Let’s start with states’ rights, a conservative principle that has been used to justify segregation and all manner of discrimination in this country, and goes back to slavery itself. Of course each state has its own marriage law, and those laws do vary from state to state. In most states one must be 18 years old to marry without parental consent, for example, but in Nebraska one must be 19, while in Georgia one can be 15, but only if pregnant. There are, in fact, many laws, not just those governing marriage, that states write and enforce differently from one another. Yet they all must conform, ultimately, to the U.S. Constitution, and many decisions have been handed down by the Supreme Court ordering that they do. When it comes to civil rights and equal protection — the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution — the states are held to a strict standard. The 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that ended bans on interracial marriages in the states was an example of the Supreme Court ruling that demonstrated the federal government’s interest in state marriage laws.