News & Politics

Will Obama's Paralysis on Gay Rights Issues Worsen the Enthusiasm Gap in November?

A handful of outspoken conservatives are tacking left of the White House on gay marriage. It's time for the White House to step up their game.

The White House’s decision to go middle of the road in a misguided attempt to keep moderates and independents in camp Obama has clearly backfired. Some speculate things could get even worse as outspoken conservatives come out and tack left of Obama on key social issues such as same-sex marriage. None hold elected office, of course, and the GOP platform remains unchanged. But even elected Republicans are quieter on LGBT issues than in previous election cycles.

The most notable Republican to come out in support of marriage equality is former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman. Following shortly on his heels, former John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt argued there is a strong conservative case to be made for gay rights. The attorney litigating the case against Prop. 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, is Ted Olson, the U.S. Solicitor General during the Bush administration. This recent turn of events may bode well long-term for gay rights. But it should also serve as an embarrassing reminder to Obama and the Democrats that they have done very little for the gay community, and that their inaction has consequences.  

At present, five states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to gay couples: Connecticut (2008), District of Columbia (2010), Iowa (2009), Massachusetts (2004), New Hampshire (2010) and Vermont (2009). Statewide laws that provide the legal equivalence marriage to same-sex partners are California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. 

According to a CNN poll conducted last month, a small majority (52 percent) of Americans believe that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to get married and have those marriages recognized. That is up from 45 percent just over a year ago. About 80 percent of Americans polled support repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Despite the obvious trend toward equal rights for gays, there has been little movement and leadership from Washington. Is it enough for the LBGT community to turn its back on the Democratic party and start voting Republican? Chances are, no. Does it “demoralize” the Democratic base further, and will they be more difficult to mobilize come this November and further down the road in 2012? Most likely.

“I don’t think the (anger) is dying down. If anything we are seeing more of it. I don’t know what effect that will have on people going to the polls but a lot of people have lost their patience,” said Paul Guequierre, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “Right now close to 80 percent of Americans support repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It makes you wonder why the Senate hasn’t passed it. The house has, why hasn’t the Senate... The president has always said he supports ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Now you could ask 'Did he push hard enough?’ The answer: Probably not enough.”

“This should not be a partisan issue. We believe in equality and we do not believe it is a liberal or a conservative value. It’s an American value,” Guequierre said.

The conservative case for gay marriage

Litigating the case of gay marriage in the U.S. Court system is none other than Ted Olson, former U.S. Solicitor General during the Bush administration and undoubtedly one of the most powerful and respected legal minds in this country.

“Many of my fellow conservatives have an almost knee-jerk hostility toward gay marriage,” Olson wrote in a Newsweek op-ed. “This does not make sense, because same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize. Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and our nation. At its best, it is a stable bond between two individuals who work to create a loving household and a social and economic partnership.”

Olson says that when word got out he was taking the case, he received some calls and letters calling it a “betrayal,” but he also reportedly received praise from both conservatives and libertarians.

In fact, the Republican establishment appears to have made a strategic decision to stay quieter on social issues.

“More and more conservatives are saying that opposition to gay marriage would not be a litmus test for membership in the GOP,” said former McCain adviser Steve Schmidt Tuesday.

Prop 8 and the California Governors race

In 2004, a Democratic candidate would have been easily damaged if gay marriage was on the ballot and they supported it. It would have been exploited by the Family Research Council and every Republican operative inside of five neighboring states. Not this year.

Just last month California Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8, that state’s controversial voter-driven ban on gay marriage. Within days, the anti-gay marriage advocates started pushing for gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Attorney General hopeful Steve Cooley to vow to not defend same-sex marriage. Neither candidate complied.

"With 2.3 million Californians out of work," said Whitman spokesperson Sarah Pompei. "Meg will remain focused on discussing her plans to create and keep jobs in the state."

In a February Washington Post poll, about two-thirds said they supported civil unions giving gays the same rights as married couples. That's an increase of 12 percentage points since December 2007. It was at 50 percent or better across party and ideological lines. Support for such arrangements is now 15 points higher than it was a few years ago among conservatives; it's up 13 points among Republicans, though Democrats are more likely to favor legal marriages than Republicans. Independents were more supportive as well.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said Walker’s decision to block Prop. 8 will likely have little impact on this year’s governor’s race.

"The impact is minimal," he said. "Certainly compared to what it might have been in other years and in other circumstances. The economy is such a dominant issue and people are so focused on the day-to-day challenges in life that I think this will pale in comparison."

“What we’re seeing is that gay rights are not the wedge issues they use to be. Republicans can’t use this as a wedge issue anymore. And that’s what we are seeing now,” Guequierre said. “I think it’s much more of a permanent shift. A lot of people think it’s a generational issue. And this is just how it’s going to be from now on.”

The risk for Obama and the Democrats

It is highly unlikely that the gay community will start clamoring to get under the Republican tent. It's also important to consider that most of those coming out in support of gay marriage don’t actually hold any elected offices. Despite the fact that some Republican insiders are now expressing their support of gay rights, the recent slate of candidates the party has offered up are not only cultural conservatives but ultra-conservative, borderline wingnuts.

The real issue here is that it is yet another embarrassing “Duh” moment for Obama and the Democrats. Considering the trending on gay marriage among moderate Republicans and independents, the smart thing strategically for the president would have been, if he had to make concessions, to go left on social issues while tacking center on fiscal issues such as the deficit. Obama’s inability to take advantage of the public’s changing opinion on gay marriage has been a constant thorn in his administration’s side. His unwillingness to provide any real leadership on gay rights -- on federal anti-workplace discrimination, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military as well as gay marriage  -- will not only continue to depress voter turnout among the LBGT community but is yet another reason for progressives to not turn out at the polls. And in this vacuum of leadership, a few articulate voices form the right on the issue of gay marriage will continue to damage the president’s credibility.