I don’t think anyone was surprised when President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage. What was a bit surprising, however, was his timing. Obama has flip-flopped back and forth on the issue, but there has been an obvious consistency to his positions: on the subject of gay marriage, he has said whatever would help him politically at the time. So most people thought he would wait until after the election to complete his “evolution.”
Why now? His campaign may believe that being pro-gay marriage has become a political plus, as public opinion has swung in that direction in recent years. Still, Obama’s change of position is risky, as North Carolina’s vote on Tuesday showed: voters banned gay marriage by a whopping 61-39 margin. And North Carolina is a swing state that Obama hopes to carry; that is why the Democrats are holding their convention in Charlotte. The North Carolina vote also highlights the fact that a substantial majority of African-Americans are anti-gay marriage. Obama won’t win unless he gets nearly all African-American votes, and in addition, black turnout is heavy. This issue is one that could cost him some black votes in state like North Carolina.
There is another factor, too: many evangelical Christians are known to be lukewarm toward Mitt Romney. Some have threatened to sit out the election. Nothing will energize those voters, and get them solidly behind Romney, more than gay marriage. So before Obama made his announcement, his campaign must have weighed the very real risk that coming out for gay marriage might cost him a victory in a swing state.
I think two factors probably explain the timing of Obama’s about-face. The first is money. Obama has devoted more time and energy to fundraising than any president in history, but reports indicate that money has not been flowing in as fast as his campaign had hoped. A remarkable number of Obama’s top bundlers–news accounts say one-sixth–are gay. Obama needs money now, not after the election, so his announcement will help to turn on the spigot when it counts the most. The other observation that seems pertinent is that declaring for gay marriage is consistent with everything else that Obama has done so far in the campaign: it is designed to fire up his base. If Obama’s team thought he was looking good in the polls–most importantly, their own internal polling–they wouldn’t be so focused on motivating liberals. They would be reaching out to swing voters. Yet, time after time, Obama has made moves that excite the left but risk alienating voters in the middle. I think yesterday’s announcement is one more sign that the Obama campaign doesn’t feel good about how things are shaping up for November.
Speaking of timing, was that a coincidence, or what? The very next day after Obama came out for gay marriage, the Washington Post ran what seemed like a book-length story on the claim that when he was in high school, Mitt Romney “bullied” a “presumed homosexual.” I don’t know whether the Post coordinated its story with the Obama campaign–the article must have been months in the making–but it certainly turned out to be timed for maximum impact, not only because of its proximity to Obama’s gay marriage announcement, but also because of the current obsession with bullying.
I actually think the story hurts Romney somewhat. It is true that it happened in 1965 or even earlier. And I agree the it is remarkable for anyone to try to make a campaign issue out of something that occurred nearly a half-century ago. The claim will be that it reflects on Romney’s character, but in fact it doesn’t. Since he graduated from high school, we have nearly 50 years’ worth of information about Romney’s character. It is exemplary. The fact that the Post had to go back to the mid-1960s to find something discreditable about him is testimony to that. (In recent decades, it seems the worst thing he has done was tying his dog to the roof of his car.)
Nevertheless, I think the story represents a setback–one hopes, a small one–for Romney’s campaign, as the Post intended. The image of Romney as a bully will stick with some voters. It will be one more silly talking point that the left will torture us with for the next six months. And the Democrats will hunt for other stories they can add to the theme. Given that the economy will still be lousy in November, however, it probably won’t matter.