Why same sex marriage has Democratic politicians in look-the-other-way mode

Veteran politician Jim McDermott repeatedly said that he was happy with Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, but suggested it would be good to "move on" to other issues. McDermott has been around long enough to read an electoral map.
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President Barack Obama visits with a crowd in Nevada

Veteran politician Jim McDermott repeatedly said that he was happy with Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, but suggested it would be good to "move on" to other issues. McDermott has been around long enough to read an electoral map.

When the liberal base of the Democratic Party gets excited, so do the media.  Witness their reaction when the president told ABC’s Robin Roberts that he favored marriage equality for same sex couples.

“Bold” and “risky,” proclaimed The Seattle Times. Roberts herself said she was “getting chills again.” The current Newsweek has Obama on its cover with a rainbow colored halo, eyes on the horizon looking slightly heavenward. Headline: “The First Gay President."

President Obama's announcement was played as the end point after he previously opposed same sex marriage, then later acknowledged that his view was “evolving.” Perhaps “revolving” would be a better word.

As a candidate for the Illinois statehouse from a hip liberal district in Chicago 16 years ago, he supported same sex unions and promised to oppose anyone who didn’t. But when he ran statewide for the U.S. Senate eight years later, he said that he opposed same-sex unions because of his Christian faith, a position reiterated during his run for president. Now he’s gone full circle.

What the president did not do was argue that marriage equality was a constitutional right, which lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies are contending in the federal courts right now. Instead, he says it belongs in the political arena, at the state level, where it was rejected by 22 percentage points in North Carolina just last week.

Still, it is the first time a president said he supported same sex couples tying the knot with a matrimonial pledge. The party base is euphoric, media coverage has been gushing and checkbooks are opening around the country.

But what about the voters? 

I had an interesting conversation on KOMO Newsradio with Jim McDermott about this last week. The elder statesman of Seattle liberalism praised the president for his courage, lauded him for moving the issue forward ... then said it was time to “move on” to other issues. He said this twice.

Newsweek clearly didn’t get the memo. What does the wise old liberal know that Tina Brown does not? 

Perhaps how to read an electoral map. 

On Monday morning, The Hill newspaper reported, Vulnerable Democratic Senators balk at Obama’s Gay Marriage Endorsement.”   Montana freshman John Tester declined to climb aboard the bandwagon. Ditto for Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Bob Casey, who dispatched Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania six years ago, along with Bill Nelson in Florida. Joe Manchin in West Virginia not only balked at supporting marriage equality, he’s even said he’s undecided about voting for Obama in November.  

All of these senators, save Manchin, are in swing states. All are states with laws or constitutional amendments outlawing same sex marriage. In fact, same sex marriage has been on the ballot in more than 30 states. It has lost by popular vote every time in states red, blue and purple.    

No wonder ol’ Jim wants to “move on.” Once you’ve scooped up your money in Seattle and Hollywood, and at Rickey Martin’s LGBT fundraiser earlier this week, there isn’t much to gain by dwelling on the issue, and plenty to lose. McDermott knows what many enthusiasts for marriage equality forget: The more the issue is discussed and debated in the political arena, the less popular it becomes.  In no state where it was on the ballot did support for it grow during the election campaign.

But this sudden jolt of front page attention did more than make gay marriage a front burner issue (at least for now).  Newsweek and company just solved a major problem for Mitt Romney. The one element of the Republican Party that Romney needs and was having trouble rallying was the social conservatives. Romney to them was like Reagan was to Big Business back in 1980, always a third or fourth backup. Social conservatives preferred Santorum or Gingrich, and before them, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, and even Rick Perry.

Romney didn’t connect with social conservatives, geographically or economically. His religion made many of them uncomfortable. Yes, he was a family man and a hard worker, but he lacked a natural rapport with them. Plus he flip-flopped on abortion, which you can only get away with in American politics by switching from pro-life to pro-choice (it shows you’ve … evolved).

Obama’s announcement, and the media’s cheerleading just drove these activists into Romney’s camp. It is Obama, not Romney who is “raising divisive social issues,” and in a way that dissolves the discomfort between the millionaire from Massachusetts and the working class conservatives who attend church more than once a week. They are numerous, they are organized, and now they are motivated.

Not that anyone around here would notice, as the social conservatives are also practically invisible to just about everyone in Manhattan, D.C., and, of course, Seattle. Besides, progressive elites are reassuring each other that this issue is a winner for them because it will rally “young voters.” Not quite. It will rally “young liberals” who are already there.

Most young people are anxiously assessing their own economic prospects and an uncertain future rather than worrying about who can marry whom. This blinkered view of the young calls to mind the confidence progressives had 40 years ago, that newly enfranchised 18-20 year olds would vote overwhelmingly for George McGovern. Didn't work out that way. Seems not every 19-year old goes to Yale.

Would the president have announced his position this early had Joe Biden not pulled a Biden by careening off message and telling David Gregory on Meet the Press that he was comfortable with same sex marriage? Doubtful. The leadership of the gay community is overwhelming Democratic.They covered for him when he visited Washington state last February, refraining from raising the issue even though his visit coincided with the contentious legislative debate over the issue. There is no reason to think that they would stop doing so with control of the U.S. Supreme Court hanging in the balance in the next four years.

Yes, the economy, jobs, and the sheer size of government and deficit will be more on the minds of most voters than same sex marriage next fall. But it will matter more now than it did before. And that is probably not what the President wanted.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.