Campaigns don’t like distractions. I remember when the Gore campaign, in the spring of 2000, was trying to transition from the primaries to the general election. We spent several weeks trying to explain why our position on Elian Gonzalez, a 9-year old Cuban boy rescued at sea after his mother's abortive and fatal attempt to come to the United States in a small boat, differed from the administration’s. Al Gore sincerely believed that Gonzalez's case should be heard in family court, but the Justice Department disagreed and ordered Gonzalez sent back to Cuba. There was an indelible and politically explosive image of young Elian in a caretaker's arm with a federal SWAT agent pointing a gun to forcibly remove him from his Florida home and ship him back to his father and grandparents in Cuba.
We were hit from all sides. The Clinton administration was furious with us — that happens when vice presidents take independent positions — and there was a lot of chatter that Gore's position was based not on ideals but on the politics of South Florida. It was a no-win situation: We got tagged with pandering but failed to win much favor in the Cuban-American community. (See Florida results: 2000.) It may be too much to say that the picture of young Elian cowering under the federal agent's gun cost Gore the White House, but it certainly didn't help us win it.
Anyway, back to my point. Distractions. Elian represented a hopelessly polarizing political issue that had deep passion on both sides. In other words, just the kind of story cable news and news aggregators thrive upon. Gay marriage is a similar issue.
That's why the timing of the administration's internal dialogue on this question is so interesting. The story broke just as President Obama is trying to set the message foundation of his campaign through his "announcement" speech in Ohio, and, more important, through his $25 million ad buy.
Here, the president is trying strike one of the main themes that will define his reelection. "America is coming back," the ad says. "You don't quit. And neither does he."
That would seem to be a slightly more unifying message than Cuban-American relations or gay marriage. But now that the gay marriage issue is raised, what should Obama do? Well, I hesitate to give advice from a heated and covered seat in the stands. But if the president wants to follow his heart, he should go all in. If he believes that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, as one thinks he must, it is better to explain his position and embrace it, rather than parsing it. Doesn't that position also fit into the frame of "Forward"?