The Obama re-election campaign has once again run into a pickle over their tendency to want to appeal to everyone and no one on the subject of gay rights. Asked point-blank in a television interview this weekend, Vice President Joe Biden pronounced himself “absolutely comfortable” with gay and lesbian couples enjoying “the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties” as heterosexual couples. This was complicated further by Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, explicitly endorsing marriage equality a day later. (HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan endorsed it back in November 2011.)
And rather than capitalizing on this and ending the charade of a continued “evolution” on the subject of marriage equality, the campaign retreated into spin mode. David Axelrod tried to blur the differences between Biden and Obama on this subject, claiming that Biden, like Obama, endorse all the same civil rights and civil liberties for gay and lesbian couples, but that this doesn’t amount to endorsing marriage equality. This probably made matters even worse for the White House, emphasizing the calculating nature of their statements and angering the only people who really care about the issue.
But in a way, the confusion over what Biden meant is exactly the point, and again reminds us that Obama’s position just won’t wash. Obama’s claim that he’s evolving on the issue, and his very good record on gay rights generally, has paradoxically made it harder for Obama to continue holding out against gay marriage. His “evolving” position and overall record have left gay advocates fully persuaded that he does favor full equality for gay and lesbian Americans, increasing impatience for him to say so already, and making them all the more certain that his failure to do so is rooted in nothing but political calculation.
All this ends up making it an even bigger deal when someone like Biden seems to be completing that evolution, even if he isn’t. Obama’s good record on gay rights has only served to raise the stakes on his failure to get it right on the issue that goes perhaps most directly to the heart of whether gays and lesbians will have full equality in this country. And so when Axelrod observes accurately that there’s a very a clear contrast between the two men on gay rights, while qualifying it by reminding us that neither Obama nor Biden is prepared to support full equality, it only risks angering people more.
Incidentally, Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter basically contradicted Axelrod today by saying that Biden’s statements did represent an advance from the previous position.
There’s not more than a handful of voters in America who are bigoted enough to hold a position on marriage equality against a candidate for President above all else, or at least not more than a handful who wouldn’t already be voting against Obama because they already think he endorses what he has strained not to endorse. So when I say “the only people who care about this issue,” I’m talking about those gay rights activists who have given millions to the re-election effort and who want to see a President take their side on this matter of importance to them. Moreover, the only impression you get from this word-parsing and game-playing is one of a cynical campaign operation unable to articulate a strong statement of principle. It spills over into areas other than just the gay rights sphere.
This will come to a head during the convention, when activists try to place marriage equality in the party platform. In four years, I predict the next Democratic nominee will support equality, and that in forty years, Obama will be looked upon unkindly by history for his ridiculous equivocation here.