Obama vs Romney on gay marriage: a tale of two evolutions

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President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage today, delighting his base and making life potentially very awkward for one Willard Mitt Romney.

Whatever the potential pitfalls for Obama (potential drop-off among marginal shares of working class white voters, disgruntled black pastors and some black evangelicals, the occasional charge of political opportunism, and the possibility that it still won’t be enough for some in the Obama base….) the perils for Romney seem greater.

Here are five reasons why:

1 Evolution

Obama, who has wavered on the issue over the years, appears to have evolved in the direction that just about everyone thinks is his true, underlying belief. Romney, who doubled down on his opposition to gay marriage on Wednesday, has undergone an evolution of his own. Despite some evidence that he might have been faking, Romney claimed when he was running for the Senate against Teddy Kennedy that he would be better for gay rights than the liberal lion. Today, few in Romney’s own camp believes he is evolving into his true self. In fact, they don’t know who his true self is.

2. Say the words

Obama had taken heat from gay rights activists, liberals and young supporters for not speaking up for gay marriage. It’s probably the most common reason cited for Obama disappointment on the left. People like Lt. Dan Choi weren’t even willing to give him credit for signing the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell because he wouldn’t say the words. Now that he has, even Choi is cheering him on. Meanwhile, all Romney can do is hunker down and pray that Tony Perkins doesn’t call, because unlike Rick Santorum, it’s not clear Mitt even knows the words evangelical conservatives want to hear. (That said, there is certainly a risk that this issue may energize evangelicals in November, even without Romney’s help.)

3. Upside, downside

For Obama, the upside in getting on the side of his base on gay marriage appears to outweigh the downside. He will be received as a hero at tomorrow’s George Clooney fundraiser, rather than facing the inevitable awkward moment during the Q&A. He will energize younger people, liberals and liberal donors. And his stance could diffuse the tension, and it has been building, between black Obama supporters and gay rights supporters/liberals who have been demanding this for nearly four years. Romney, by contrast, has no discernible upside. His reiteration of being against gay marriage won’t help with evangelicals OR with white suburban and young voters. But it does remind a lot of GOPers that they would have liked Santorum better. Plus, because people don’t see him as genuine, Romney looks even more like a hapless creature of his increasingly far right party.

4. Playing to type

Obama being for gay marriage fits what most people believe about him: that he is socially progressive, even if sometimes political pragmatism makes him reluctant to appear too liberal. Romney also reinforces the baseline image people have of him, by saying he has been entirely consistent on the marriage issue … since he began running for office. Doh!

5. The history thing

Even people who personally disagree with Obama on same sex marriage will agree that he made history today. What presidents say has a lot of power, and carries tremendous social and historical weight. For Romney, the historic look of fighting too fiercely against gay marriage would not be good. And he and his party will probably prefer to steer as clear of it as they can … or rather, as clear as the religious right will let them.

Let’s be clear: the country is basically 50-50 on gay marriage. Every time it’s put to a vote, even in the blue state of California, restricting marriage to a man and a woman passes, overwhelmingly. People are, on the main, more in favor of civil unions or domestic partnerships. But that’s mostly because older Americans remain opposed. Younger people, including people my kids’ age, are for gay marriage, meaning that in 20 years, gay marriage will almost certainly have overwhelming support. The right will ultimately lose on this. And gay people aren’t ever going to settle for civil unions. So Obama has essentially gotten ahead of the history, rather than allowing himself to remain behind it. Is that smart politics? It’s hard to say, and frankly it may not matter. Politics is about risk, and clearly, President Obama took a risk that he wanted to take, whatever the consequences.

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One Response to Obama vs Romney on gay marriage: a tale of two evolutions

  1. Rupert says:

    Personally, I’m glad the evolution is complete and he’s correct on the issue, on the right history, etc. And I hope right wing groups will now yell and scream and act foolishly, as bigots do. But come November this won’t be a big issue.

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