How Obama’s gay marriage statement changes the presidential race

Matt Buchalter, a 34-year-old gay doctor who works in a Manhattan hospital, first heard the news when he got back to his office after seeing a patient. His computer was open at the CNN website, which blared a story that was rapidly spreading around the world: Barack Obama had just publicly stated his support for gay marriage.

Buchalter was amazed. He had heard that morning that Obama might be talking about the issue, but he — along with many other Americans — did not expect such an unequivocal statement. “I was kind of surprised. I think it was quite courageous to say that in the middle of an election year,” he said.

It was certainly a historic step. Obama’s revelation, given in a hastily arranged TV interview that cut into the US networks’ regular schedule, was hailed by many gay rights activists and progressive groups as a landmark in the struggle for gay equality. It was seen as a natural progression for America’s first black president — whose own parents’ mixed-race marriage was illegal in some US states when he was born — to come out swinging for the rights of a social group suffering discrimination.

“Ten years ago people would have said this was a radical idea. Now this event will be one of the milestones in the history of the struggle. I did not expect it,” said Professor Dale Carpenter, an expert in civil liberties at the University of Minnesota law school.

But nothing in American politics is that simple. To many people, especially among Obama’s core Democratic supporters, last week’s statement was an obviously moral decision long overdue. Yet behind it was a tale of careful political calculation that feeds into more complex and much bigger political struggles. This is an election year and Obama is going to spend nearly all of it locked in a brutal struggle with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. In making his statement Obama risked inflaming Romney’s socially conservative base just as much as he would delight his own supporters. After all, the day before, the public in North Carolina — a swing state that Obama won in 2008 — had voted strongly to ban gay marriage.

In US politics, where religion and social views play a central role, nothing is simply the right or wrong choice. No wonder, then, that Buchalter’s happiness was tinged last week with scepticism. Few people believed Obama had not privately supported gay marriage all along. “It is sad that we now get excited and root for a politician when they just come out and say what they have believed for a long time,” he said.

‘Evolving’ views
There is no doubt Obama’s decision was highly political. His administration has moved slowly but surely on gay rights. It had stopped defending the Clinton-era Defence of Marriage Act in court, improved gay couples’ civil rights and allowed gay people to serve openly in the US military. But until last week Obama had refused to take a firm position, saying that his views were “evolving”: a choice of words that was infuriating to many gay rights activists.

So what changed his mind? One reason could have been the banks upon banks of empty seats at his first official campaign event in Ohio last weekend. The rally was held at a university campus and may have been a warning sign to Obama’s team that they might find it difficult to recreate the sort of enthusiasm among young voters that helped secure victory in 2008. Gay rights is a hugely popular cause among young voters and especially so on college campuses.

“It will absolutely energise the base, especially young voters, and if you can get those young voters out to the polls that is a shot in the arm for the campaign,” said Professor David Cohen, a political scientist at Ohio’s University of Akron.

There is also likely to be a simple calculation around the need to keep cash coming into campaign coffers. A recent survey by the Washington Post revealed that one in six major “bundlers” of donations for Obama were gay and many had long been unhappy at his reticence on marriage. But within hours of Obama making his announcement one of his biggest gay backers, philanthropist Jonathan Lewis, had maxed out his legal limit for donating. “During every successful social justice and civil rights battle in American history, progress is made when we celebrate our gains,” Lewis said.

Finally, there is a political calculation involving Romney’s position. Despite a relatively moderate record on gay rights while governor of Massachusetts, Romney has had to tack to the right in order to woo his party’s conservative base during this year’s Republican nomination battle. By coming out for gay marriage, Obama has drawn a clear distinction with Romney who is looking increasingly extreme.

Revelations of Romney’s involvement in possibly anti-gay bullying at school, including forcibly cutting one pupil’s hair, also emerged last week. Romney’s likability scores have plummeted. That might not be a problem for his base, but it could be a big issue for the slim slice of independent voters whom many experts predict will decide who sits in the White House. “Romney has to make himself appealing to swing voters and coming on hard right is going to hurt him. He is in a very precarious position,” said Cohen.

Independent groups supporting Obama’s campaign have already trotted out a fresh attack ad on the issue. American Bridge, which can campaign for Obama but is legally barred by campaign finance laws from co-ordinating with his staff, released a brutal video and a website both called Mitt Gets Worse. They feature endless clips of Romney making anti-gay marriage statements, saying gay unions make it harder to raise healthy children and are a blow to civilisation. It also played a clip of Romney giggling as he is tackled by an interviewer over the bullying allegations. “I don’t remember that incident,” Romney laughs.

Yet it is not all good news for Obama. There is a reason that his campaign shied away from backing gay marriage for so long and that is because it remains a potential political minefield. American attitudes may be changing, but it is more at the speed of a glacier than an avalanche. Observers pointed out that Obama said the issue remained one for individual states to decide for themselves. It is clear that he has no plans to insert the federal government into the argument or to take concrete steps to make new law.

Some experts, such as Carpenter, believe that is wise. Such a law or executive order would undoubtedly be challenged as unconstitutional and with the current conservative bias of the supreme court it would be liable to fail — if it ever even got that far. “Obama has done everything that he can,” Carpenter said.

But many gay activists do not agree. They are angry that Obama’s words are not translating into actions and that in effect he is saying that, while he believes banning gay marriage is morally wrong, each state is free to carry on doing it.

This, again, is where political calculations come into play. The vote in North Carolina, in which 61% of voters backed banning not only gay marriage but also civil unions, was convincing: 93 of the state’s 100 counties voted in favour of adding the discriminatory clause into the state’s constitution. But North Carolina is hardly alone. Twenty-nine other states stretching from Oregon to Florida have added similar clauses.

If Obama had picked a fight on gay marriage the list of problems he would face in swing states would be large. It may be that young voters favour the move but the elderly — who can dominate the vote in electorally crucial Florida — are usually solidly against it. Swing states like Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio have significant blocs of religious voters who would be upset if the issue became too prominent.

By the end of the week, most of the gay activists who had welcomed Obama’s move had realised their struggle would go on. Indeed, with more states seeking local bans on gay marriage this year, it remains an uphill one.

“It will happen eventually,” said Carpenter. “But I think it is going to take decades.” – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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