President Obama’s comments on gay marriage and the way in which those words were pulled out of him by activists and donors may have a few unintended consequences.
For one thing, Democrats up and down the ticket will be asked their position on the issue. Clarity is important for voters, so I would find this a very positive development. But for Democrats in swing states and districts this may get dicey. These are the very Democrats (red state senators and Blue Dog Democrats) who may already be at risk because of their votes on Obamacare and the stimulus. Do they part with the president, or take their chances with anti-gay marriage voters? This may be one more reason moderate Democrats choose not to campaign with Obama.
Second, Charlotte became a very problematic place to have the Democratic National Convention. North Carolina just passed a ban on gay marriage that “disappointed” the president. Politico reports: “Grassroots supporters took to petition site Change.org and to Twitter to demand that Democrats move their nominating convention out of Charlotte and to a state that treats ‘all citizens equally’ after Tarheel state voters ratified an amendment to ban gay marriage Tuesday. In less than 24 hours, the petition had garnered more than 23,000 signatures.” But the DNC says it’s not moving. In addition to its gay marriage ban North Carolina is a right-to-work state. It is noteworthy that Obama is rewarding a state (in an effort to keep it in his column in November) at the risk of offending two key donor groups, gays and Big Labor. I suppose he figures there is nothing he can do to lose the support of supporters of gay marriage and Big Labor. It may make for some disagreeable demonstrations, however.
Third, Obama’s excruciating roll-out of his change in position and the blatant electoral calculation take some of the sting out of the charge that his opponent Mitt Romney is the “flip-flopper.” (On this issue, with considerable consistency, Romney has supported equal employment for gays, but not gay marriage.) The Obama campaign seems torn between casting Romney as a flip-flopper or a right-wing zealot. With this move, the needle moves in the direction of “paint him as an extremist.”
Four, this may bolster the charge that Obama is concerned about everything but the most important issue, the economy. His “signature” legislation is Obamacare. His “historic step” is about gay rights. Obama will deny that he’s taken his eye off the ball on the economy, but the more Obama is forced to talk about other things and the more the media focus on his position on extraneous issues the harder it is for him to insist that he’s made the economy his number one priority.
In addition, the notion that social conservatives would stay home and/or close their wallets to Romney suffered a blow when Hilary Rosen reminded them why they detest liberal elites. With the marriage issue, Romney hardly has to raise the issue himself. Values voters know what the difference is on this issue between the two candidates. Does the backlash from social conservatives (sent flying into Romney’s arms) overpower the lift Obama will get from gay-marriage supporters? Very possibly, especially when one considers that younger voters who support gay marriage are less likely to turn out than older voters.
Finally, the gay marriage issue again highlights the importance of the Supreme Court in this election. Would Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice who didn’t discern the right to gay marriage in the Constitution? Will Romney raise the specter of court-imposed gay marriage, despite Obama’s assurances that this will be left to the states? (It is unclear whether Obama thinks popular votes and legislation are the way to go or whether he would be happy to see state courts divine a right to gay marriage in state constitutions).
The media squall on this topic will recede over time. Gay marriage, like abortion or school choice or immigration, will become, I suspect, more a matter of rhetoric for most candidates than a specific agenda item. (In the abortion arena, the Supreme Court hasn’t left that much room for legislation.) That doesn’t mean it is unimportant. It simply means politicians will have yet another issue on which to grandstand.
Obama had no choice but to confess his position on the issue. It will certainly help fundraising with gay donors. But the long-term and even the medium-term implications are far from clear.