Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 7, 2012

If Vice President Biden continues to make public appearances during this campaign, White House press secretary Jay Carney should be offered a membership in the janitors’ union.

As things stand, the spokesman does not have the supplies necessary to clean up the mess Biden made in his appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Biden gave his full support to same-sex marriage — a position conspicuously at odds with the public stance of his boss, President Obama, who is widely assumed to share Biden’s views but who says that his own thinking is “evolving.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The vice president said he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, committing the classic Washington gaffe of accidentally speaking the truth. This bit of straight talk made Obama’s position — neither for nor against such unions but in an evolutionary state, not unlike the Galapagos finch — all the more untenable. On Monday, Biden took off for a campaign event in Tennessee, leaving Carney on cleanup duty. But the more Carney swabbed the mess, the more it spread.

CNN’s Jessica Yellin asked whether Obama was trying to “have it both ways before an election” and whether he should “stop dancing around the issue.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper said that “it seems cynical to hide this prior to the election” and that “I don’t want to hear the same talking points 15 times in a row.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd said with a grin, “So help me out here. He opposes bans on gay marriage, but he doesn’t yet support gay marriage?”

The pounding was so intense that radio personality Les Kinsolving, a gadfly who tries to ask the most outrageous question at briefings, was being overlooked. Midway through the briefing, he appeared to pass out, sliding to the floor. As he was being helped to a seat, Kinsolving called out, “I just have one question!”

Carney tried to parry the same-sex-marriage questions, gamely at first and then testily as reporters began to laugh at his answers. He grew uncharacteristically flustered. When an unrelated question came about whether Obama would support the reelection of scandal-plagued Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Carney answered: “I mean — well, yes, sure. I just don’t — I haven’t — I haven’t been asked it before so I. . . . The president — I’ll have to — I’ll have to get back to you.”

Biden hadn’t planned to make news about same-sex marriage or to endorse a position on the issue. The gaffe-prone vice president had been relatively on message for months. But on Sunday, he referred to the likely Republican presidential nominee as “President Romney” and to his own boss as “President Clinton.” And he inadvertently set off a frenzy on same-sex marriage, not because his position was surprising but because it made Obama’s look all the more absurd.

By Monday morning, even Education Secretary Arne Duncan was being asked for his position on such unions (he supports them). HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan had already taken that stance. Next up: Energy Secretary Steven Chu?

Whatever Obama’s public position, there was little doubt in the briefing room Monday that the president supports gay marriage and that he would go public with this position after Election Day, when he no longer need fear losing independent voters. Carney, who had the unenviable position of trying to convince the press corps otherwise, arrived 35 minutes late for the job and found a feisty audience.

“I have no update on the president’s personal views,” he told the first questioner, Anne Gearan of the Associated Press. “He, as you know, said that his views on this were evolving.”

Tapper asked whether Obama was “still evolving” or whether he’s “just waiting for the proper time to drop it, likely after November.”

“It is as it was,” Carney said.

CBS’s Nora O’Donnell tried another approach. “Why does the president oppose same-sex marriage?”

“I really don’t have any update for you,” Carney answered.

“The vice president appears to have evolved on the issue, but the president is still evolving?” O’Donnell inquired.

“I will leave it to individuals to describe their own personal views.”

Reporters fired dozens of barbed questions and taunts. “Contorted position! . . . Why did you guys send out statements to clarify? . . . What does the word ‘evolving’ mean? . . . Is he not evolved?. . . I want you to dissect the evolution.” A fly buzzed around the lectern. Carney let out a sigh.

NPR’s Mara Liasson asked whether Obama was “too clever by half,” essentially telling voters: “I’m getting ready to change my mind.”

“His views,” Carney maintained, “are crystal clear.”

Chris Geidner from Metro Weekly, a gay publication, pointed out the obvious: “If he’s crystal clear, why is everybody in this room asking you questions?”

“I think everybody in this room is reacting in the way folks often do to one story that takes off and then they run . . . and chase it.”

And the press secretary runs after them, mop in hand.

danamilbank@washpost.com