On Wednesday, after years of claiming that his view was “evolving,” President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. Oddly, the catalyst for that decision was probably his opponent for the presidency, Mitt Romney. Social issues weren’t expected to intrude on a campaign supposed to be all about the economy. But last week, Romney’s openly gay foreign policy spokesman, Richard Grenell, resigned, implying that social conservatives had driven him out of the job, which thrust the issue into the campaign and led to Vice President Joe Biden’s saying on Meet the Press that he supported same-sex marriage.
At that point, Obama’s fate was sealed. Maintaining his opposition to marriage equality would only have exacerbated an awkward divide on an issue of mounting importance to his party.
By any objective standard, Obama’s previous position was simply untenable. His administration ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” and stopped enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between and a man and a woman. Privately, he supported gay marriage, and how and when he would make that clear was regularly discussed among his advisers and the press. But he was plainly in no rush. Going public risked alienating important constituencies.
In politics, saying that you’re “evolving” on an issue is often a politically expedient way of telegraphing to one group of voters that you plan to move toward them, while maintaining plausible deniability to those whose view you’re about to abandon. The typical course for politicians is to “evolve” toward socially liberal positions, a process made easier by the media’s tendency to cut them some slack. (Politicians are never described as “evolving” away from gay marriage, and those who do move in a conservative direction often couch the shift as being driven by religious faith. They don’t get much slack from the press.)
Obama’s announcement was historic and commendable. But it only came after this opportunism had begun to become apparent. “Being only ‘kind of’ for human rights is a dangerous place for a Democrat to be,” one national strategist on gay issues presciently observed to me on Tuesday, referring to Obama’s then-still-official opposition to gay marriage. “You can’t survive the scrutiny of the modern news cycle.”
If Obama’s evolution was awkward and embarrassing for a modern president, the same is also true of Romney’s devolution. In 1994, he proclaimed himself “better than Ted Kennedy” on matters of gay rights. But by the time he began running for president in 2007, Romney had restyled himself, in typically heavy-handed fashion, as a staunch social conservative who favored a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—a shift in public emphasis no less expedient than Obama’s.
In a sense, Obama and Romney are mirror images of one another: On gay rights, each is a cautious pragmatist trying to catch up to his party, although this entails their running in opposite directions.
The real leaders and most of the important battles are at the state level. Most reports of Obama’s shift noted that it came a day after North Carolina voters approved by a 20-point margin a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
But a better gauge of the national debate came on Tuesday night in a different swing state, when, on the last day of Colorado’s legislative session, a bill to approve civil unions was heading for passage with bipartisan support. In the final hours, the Republican House speaker blocked it over the objections of some of his own members. Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, condemned the move as “depriving people of their civil rights” and called for a special session that begins on Monday.
What’s notable in the presidential context is how far the fight has progressed beyond Romney’s desire for a federal constitutional ban, which no one seriously entertains. Obama has now caught up to a majority of his party, however uneasily. Romney has situated himself with the extremists in his own, which may or may not provide an advantage this fall, but certainly won’t do so for long.