In endorsing gay marriage, Barack Obama may have gotten ahead of public opinion on one of the most emotional issues in politics. And yet I can’t help thinking the move poses more risk for Mitt Romney. Am I crazy?
The conventional wisdom is that the president’s decision firms up his base, especially the portion that helps fund his campaign, but potentially hurts him among swing voters. I’m not convinced that’s right--the Pew Research Center reports that a plurality of swing voters in Southern states oppose gay marriage, but the only states in play are North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, which skew more moderate. And there are many more battlegrounds outside the South, where attitudes are much more hospitable. But assume for the sake of argument that the CW applies. Even so, it misses the way the issue will play out as a practical matter.
Most obviously, Romney now has to decide how he responds. Thus far, the de facto GOP nominee has been content to robotically cite his opposition to gay marriage and his support for a constitutional ban. But his heart is rarely in it. Indeed, he's been pretty determined to duck the issue since Sunday, when Joe Biden shoved it to the center of the national conversation. That’s partly, I think, because Romney’s no bigot. (The guy appointed the first chief diversity officer in the history of his state, for crying out loud.) But it’s mostly because, while swing voters may be ambivalent about gay marriage itself, they’re much less comfortable with displays of intolerance. Many of the same voters who profess squeamishness over the idea would punish a politician for crusading against it. If you don’t believe me, just consider that, prior to this week, the White House was perfectly comfortable opposing bans on gay marriage even though it stopped conspicuously short of embracing gay marriage.
Unfortunately for Romney, the one thing Obama’s announcement deprives him of is opportunities to duck the issue. Given the way it’s energized conservatives—Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was quick to thunder that “today’s announcement almost ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election”—Romney now faces enormous pressure to amplify his position. Conservatives will ask about it constantly. They will insist on highlighting it in the party platform and at this summer’s convention. Rote box-checking of the sort he’s practiced so far will no longer suffice.
Now, a politician with more credibility among conservatives might be willing to take the guff to preserve his general-election prospects. But conservative cred is something Romney distinctly lacks. It’s the reason he had to take a hard-line stance on immigration during the primaries, and to throw his arms around Paul Ryan. I’d guess it’s the reason he didn’t distance himself from a supporter bent on indicting the president for treason this week.
If George W. Bush were the GOP nominee, the response would be a no brainer: Continue to toe the party line when necessary but otherwise pretend the issue doesn’t exist. But Romney has no such luxury. Trying to minimize it will send barely-repressed conservative suspicions spewing forth like a geyser, while using gay marriage to shore up his right-wing bona fides will play pretty badly this fall. It’s a helluva dilemma. Kind of makes the president’s position look like a bit of a yawner.