THE VIEW FROM HERE:
May 16, 2012
The important "evolution" of the President's views on same-sex marriage....from "Flip" to "Flop" and back again
by Charles Schott
The President's decision last week to come out in support gay marriage is politically significant. Potentially so significant, in fact, is it that after the election, we may look back and point to how the electoral contest was defined by this decision.....although not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.
Let's start with what happened. Prior to last week, the President was on record as supporting gay rights, but not gay marriage. See http://jonathanturley.org/2012/05/08/white-house-president-is-crystal-clear-on-his-position-on-gay-marriage-he-has-no-firm-position-on-gay-marriage/. The media's take was that the President was being vague on the issue for election year purposes. See http://cnsnews.com/news/article/obamas-vague-gay-marriage-stance-under-scrutiny-0.
At the same time, the Obama White House was apparently divided into two camps: those who openly supported gay marriage...and those not openly stating their true positions. While the President most recently had been on record supporting something less than gay marriage, it is apparent that he was simply waiting for the right moment when a change would have minimum negative political consequences. See http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/11/politics/gay-marriage-obama-timeline/index.html.
From "Flip" to "Flop" and back again. The President's publicly stated views on this issue apparently developed (and re-developed) over time. The Wall Street Journal provided the following earlier conflicting quotes from candidate and President Obama as follows:
"I favor legalizing same-sex marriage"
Running for the Illinois state senate (1996)
"Marriage is between a man and a woman."
Running for the U. S. Senate (2004)
"My feelings are constantly evolving" on gay marriage.
As President (2010)
"I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
As President (2012)
See Wall Street Journal article, After 'Evolution,' Obama Backs Gay Marriage, by Carol E. Lee, Thursday, May 10, 2012 @ page A6.
Before this week, the official White House position was one of supporting something short of same-sex marriage. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/civil-rights. Vice President Biden, however, didn't get the memo. In making his support known for same-sex marriage on Meet the Press last week, Biden suddenly put the issue front and center. See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/us/politics/biden-expresses-support-for-same-sex-marriages.html?pagewanted=all and http://www.nationaljournal.com/whitehouse/white-house-scrambling-on-biden-same-sex-remarks-20120507.
Biden's comments and the related discussion in the press subsequently led to the President (after consulting with is White House and campaign staffers) announcing that an "evolution" of his position to one of support had occurred. See http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/11/politics/gay-marriage-obama-timeline/index.html.
Put aside that when a Republican does something like this, it is not called "evolving," but a "flip-flop." See http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico-live/2012/05/feinstein-obama-didnt-flip-flop-on-gay-marriage-123274.html and http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico-live/2012/05/patrick-says-romneys-flipflopped-on-gay-rights-123289.html.
This decision by the President seems significant, however, well beyond either the merits of the issue or being a simple matter of "flip-flop gotcha."
The Obama campaign is trying to make up for this and as a result is developing something of a reputation for their willingness to raise funds creatively but in an unabashed sort of way (as in the campaign's recent effort to raise money on Mother's Day, see http://www.whitehousedossier.com/2012/05/11/obama-campaign-mothers-day-raise-cash/). Recently, the Obama campaign has also changed it's position on Administration officials being available to help Super Pacs raise funds. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/feb/07/barack-obama/obama-campaign-says-officials-will-now-appear-supe/.
While the President's new position on same-sex marriage may be helpful in generating new enthusiasm (and money) from liberals generally and from Hollywood liberals in particular (see http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/norman-lear-support-obama-322666 and http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100157393/if-you-want-to-know-why-obama-endorsed-gay-marriage-follow-the-money/), it is also expected to generate substantial financial support for the President's re-election effort from the gay and lesbian community. See http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2012/05/14/inside-obamas-lgbt-donor-machine-how-the-president-will-make-millions-from-gay-marriage-push/.
While equivocating (as well as evolving) on same-sex marriage, President Obama has consistently made clear his sympathies are with the organized gay and lesbian community and their agenda. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/civil-rights. He has consistently tried to take an incremental approach, however, allowing public support continues to build gradually for their (and his) positions. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_of_same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States.
For example, last year the President took the unprecedented move of having the Justice Department's Solicitor's Office reverse it's prior position of support in the Federal Courts regarding the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), having the government instead pay for outside counsel to make that case. Traditionally, the Justice Department defends the constitutionality of all laws passed by Congress unless such a case clearly cannot be made (and even there it doesn't weigh in on the other side). See http://www.metroweekly.com/mt/mt-search.cgi?blog_id=18&tag=Paul%20Clement&limit=20.
The gay and lesbian community has also been pleased with the recent abandonment of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy covering gays and lesbians serving in the military, which was originally put in place by President Clinton. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/23/us/23military.html.
Along with the carrot, however, you also have the "shtick."
The official reason given by the White House for the President's new view on same-sex marriage is that it is an issue on which the President's thinking has been "evolving" and influenced by discussions with colleagues and family members. See http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-05-10/news/chi-pn-obama-gay-marriage-decision-influence-20120510_1_gay-marriage-gay-staffers-gay-couples
. Given the coverage of the Vice President's comments, a decision was made simply to announce the change now. See http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/11/politics/gay-marriage-obama-timeline/index.html
. In this telling, the President is presented as sincere and principled; as doing something more inevitable than momentous. See http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico-live/2012/05/durbin-obamas-gay-marriage-decision-wasnt-political-123273.html
When your "evolved" thinking is different from your previously announced position, why wait to say so? See http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57431495/obama-hastened-same-sex-marriage-announcement-after-bidens-public-stand/
The carrot in comparison to the (more obvious) stick. The downside associated with the President's decision to "evolve" (i.e., flip-flop) on this issue has been discussed in the press, but primarily at a surface level. The press and political observers have noted the "wedge" potential of this issue with certain D core constituencies, particularly with respect to the more culturally conservative elements in the black and Latino communities (but also for working class and other more traditional religious and ethnic constituencies), i.e., those whose thinking is apparently not as "evolved" on this issue. See http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/obama-calls-pastors-explain-gay-marriage-support-black/story?id=16342670#.T7FNu3n0Txs and http://www.npr.org/2012/05/14/152691171/latino-voters-can-be-anti-gay-marriage-but-still-pro-obama.
For example, last year in Maryland, a "gay marriage" bill fell apart in the state legislature at the last minute due to defections among legislators representing the minority community, largely in response to those legislators taking heat from their supporters at the local level. See http://www.realclearpolitics.com/news/ap/politics/2011/Mar/12/maryland_gay_marriage_bill_dies_with_no_final_vote.html. It subsequently passed earlier this year by one vote. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/maryland-senate-passes-same-sex-marriage-bill/2012/02/23/gIQAfbakWR_story.html.
Just this last week, however, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly (61%-39%) banned gay marriage by amending their state constitution in a state-wide referendum. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/north-carolina-votes-on-same-sex-marriage-amendment-with-support-strong-for-ban/2012/05/08/gIQAnaCpBU_story.html and http://www.ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/North_Carolina_Same-Sex_Marriage,_Amendment_1_%28May_2012%29. Unlike Maryland, North Carolina is one of the key states that President Obama's team sees as critical to locking up the 270 electoral votes in the coming election and a potential swing state that they seriously want to keep in play. See http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-05-13/black-churches-gay-marriage-obama/54941862/1.
Overall, the legality of same-sex marriage is currently recognized in eight states (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States), while thirty-one other states have, like North Carolina, banned it within their legal system (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wi.3ki/List_of_U.S._state_constitutional_amendments_banning_same-sex_unions_by_type).
The surface analysis by D's pushing this issue with the Obama campaign is that while this has the potential to be a difficult matter in the short term, there will be time to get these culturally more conservative elements in the various minority and ethnic communities used to the position, in effect anticipating that they will "move on" once they appreciate the stakes of the President not being re-elected. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2143503/How-religious-black-Americans-agreeing-disagree-Obama-gay-marriage--vote-elect-President.html.
Again, this surfaces the view that given all the President has done for the black and Latino communities and the historical significance of his election, it would not be a viable option for these groups to take their votes to the President's opponent.
The less obvious stick is bigger and more important. Even if the Obama team is right about the potential willingness of these constituencies to get past their fundamental concerns on this issue by November, what hasn't been fully focused on is the overall impact of these developments on House and Senate races and the overall electoral map, which potentially is very significant.
To begin with, the President's new position has the potential to impact the 2012 Congressional races. Fellow D's, particularly those running in several close Senate races, are already starting to distance themselves from the President's new stance. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-11/some-congress-democrats-split-with-obama-on-gay-marriage.html and http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/va-politics/marriage-debate-may-carry-risks-for-kaine-obama-in-virginia/2012/05/10/gIQA3LsoGU_story.html. The 2012 senate election contests were already close prior to the President's announcement with the overall political terrain favoring the R's picking up seats and with the R's already seen as having the potential to re-capture Senate control. See http://egopnews.com/schott_12Mar26.htm.
Additionally, the decision to support same-sex marriage will likely impact the 2012 Presidential electoral contest. The President's new position on same-sex marriage are expected to have significant ripple effects in each swing states that will be different in nature and importance in each such state.
Up to now, the President's re-election team has been focused on expanding the contested electoral map to include states (like NC and VA) that the R's feel they need.
Much has been written about how this approach also maximizes the number of potential paths to get the President to 270 electoral votes. See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303877604577382420520905592.html and http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/11/messinas-map-multiple-paths-to-270-for-obama-running-through-midwest/.
Being competitive in such traditional R states as Virginia and North Carolina has been the subject of a major effort, including driving the D's decision to hold their National Convention in North Carolina this September. The D's were already having difficulty with organized labor on this front. See http://hosted2.ap.org/APDefault/*/Article_2012-05-12-North%20Carolina-Political%20Headache/id-a5fe03facf274a529b77ddf65b09a09f. The same-sex marriage issue is now adding to those problems. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-13/gay-marriage-position-may-challenge-obama-in-swing-states.html.
The electoral map facing both R's and D's has highlighted the competitiveness of three distinct areas of the country representing 15 states with 192 electoral votes (with 270 needed to elect):
3 Southern states with 57 electoral votes (i.e., VA (13), NC (15) and FL (29));
4 Western states with 31 electoral votes (CO (9), NV (6), AZ (11) and NM (5)); and
8 contiguous industrial Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states with 104 electoral votes (the largest prize...stretching from MN to NJ, (i.e., MN (10), WI (10), IA (6), MO (10), MI (16), OH (18), PA (20) and NJ (14)).
The electoral significance of the President's decision to change his position on same-sex marriage is "at the margins," but nonetheless has the potential to be decisive in determining where (i.e., in which states) the 2012 election will end up being fought.
This is because the President's change on this issue can be expected to have an impact on voter enthusiasm (and turnout) in both the southern and western swing states listed above, primarily due to the presence of culturally conservative black D communities in the south and the similarly conservative Latino D communities in the south (Florida in particular) and west.
Additionally, the flip side of gay marriage's support with young voters is its unpopularity with older voters (who vote in higher numbers than young people). In Florida, with its heavy concentration of retired seniors, this has the potential to be a decisive factor. See http://hotair.com/archives/2012/05/10/if-national-polls-show-support-for-gay-marriage-why-does-it-keep-losing-in-state-votes/.
The issue also can be expected to have a similar yet equally significant impact on Catholic and other traditional D voters in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states....again, not enough to change the overall levels of support for the President in relative percentage terms, but enough to effect the President's support in terms of overall voter turnout.
Swing states, by definition, are places where every vote counts.
The impact of this issue on Romney and Republicans is not as significant. Romney's position on this issue is different from President Obama's in many respects. Romney strongly opposes discrimination against gays and lesbians and has stated that he would not bring back “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but he also supports DOMA. He does not support gay marriage (or Civil Unions that are the equivalent of full marriage). This position includes support for a federal constitutional amendment on marriage being between a man and a woman (causing the RNC Chair to backtrack on his statement last week that this was an issue best left to the states). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_positions_of_Mitt_Romney#LGBT_rights.
It's fair to say that Romney's position on gay and lesbian issues has also “evolved” over the years, although he has never previously supported gay marriage. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/two-views-on-gay-marriage/2012/05/10/gIQABLTkGU_graphic.html?hpid=z2). That said, the situation is somewhat different than would be the case, say, if Rick Santorum were the R nominee.
President Obama's change on same-sex marriage will not necessarily add to Romney's voter support among those D's who disagree with President Obama on this issue, but it is likely to be of importance to voters in the Republican base, in that it may help address the concerns of evangelical and other culturally conservative voters, by emphasizing to them how Obama's position is even more at odds with their position on an issue they care about. See http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76191.html. This may have an added impact in key swing states such as VA, NC, NV, CO, IA, OH and FL. See http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76143.html.
While there is a view that Obama's change of position on same-sex marriage could disadvantage Romney (see http://prospect.org/article/how-gay-marriage-might-hurt-romney), it appears that is instead having the opposite effect resolving a wedge issue facing the R's.
In this context, it is not surprising that Republicans generally have remained quiet in response to the President's new policy. See http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76190.html. The party is also being described as increasingly “gay friendly.” See http://www.kansascity.com/2012/05/14/3611921/quietly-the-republican-party-is.html.
The view from here is that the President's decision will have the effect of contracting the contested electoral map so that the election is now much more likely to be fought out decisively in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states where moderates and independents are the expected to be the contested swing voters.
This seems to be where the Romney campaign would want to have the election focused and where their election themes and strategy primarily will be directed.
At this point, of these Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states, Minnesota and New Jersey seem the biggest stretch for Romney, although MN Gov. Pawlenty's or NJ Gov. Christie's selection as Romney's Vice Presidential running mate could influence that assessment (see http://egopnews.com/Schott_12Jan13.htm).
In the other states in this group (i.e., WI, IA, MI, OH and PA) and also in FL, this issue could make the President's position more tightly competitive on a significantly narrowed map.
It is worth pointing out that all of these states except MO and AZ were carried by Sen. Obama in 2008.
It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the months ahead. What can't be ignored, however, are the strategic implications resulting from the President's decision.
What began with Vice President Biden's "throw away" lines (for which he subsequently apologized to the President, (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/2012/05/10/gIQA9DYWGU_blog.html?hpid=z2)) a major strategic decision has emerged. It will be interesting looking back later this Fall to see if the trade-off made by the President's campaign to re-energize support from the gay and lesbian community, from young people and from the D party base will have been worth it.
In any event, it is always appropriate to note that from an R perspective, the Vice President truly has been "the gift that keeps on giving."
Charles Schott served in the last three Republican administrations and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the George W. Bush Administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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