Brief Note on the Politics of SSM

So how should we understand the president’s decision to endorse the legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage?

Ross Douthat has an excellent new Campaign Stops column on the politics of same-sex marriage. He notes that opinion polls seem to consistently overstate the extent of popular support for same-sex marriage, which could be why the size of the majority in favor of Amendment 1 in North Carolina proved surprising to many outside observers. This could be why the president has been so reluctant to endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage. At the same time, however, a vocal and influential segment of his base has seen this as a profoundly problematic stance, as Ross makes clear:

Supporters of same-sex marriage have worked very hard to frame their issue, not as an ordinary political conflict, but as an all-or-nothing question that pits enlightenment and progress against reaction, bigotry and hate. I don’t accept that framing, but I accept that its architects genuinely believe in it, and see the conflict over same-sex unions as a clear-cut struggle between good and evil, with no possibility of middle ground.

If same-sex marriage isn’t an issue where people can disagree in good faith, though, then the president’s evasions and obfuscations can’t be treated as ordinary political maneuverings, and excused as just so much politics-as-usual. If the debate is as black and white as many supporters of same-sex marriage argue, then they should be much harder on political leaders who pretend that it’s a gray area.

Indeed, if you accept the framing of the debate that many liberals (and many journalists) embrace, then you have to acknowledge that President Obama has spent the last four years lying to the American people about his convictions on one of the defining civil rights issues of our time, and giving aid and comfort to pure bigotry in the service of his other political priorities.

But there is another dimension to the president’s decision-making which most analysts haven’t fully taken in. Peter Wallsten and Dan Eggen of the Washington Post reported the following on Monday:

About one in six of Obama’s top campaign “bundlers” are gay, according to a Washington Post review of donor lists, making it difficult for the president to defer the matter.

In light of recent news reports that the Obama presidential campaign has a very high burn rate, i.e., it is spending the money it is raising at a rapid clip, this is clearly an important consideration. President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage will prove a tremendous boon to his fundraising efforts. 

So is this necessarily good news for Mitt Romney? It’s not clear. Romney might make gains among culturally conservative opponents of same-sex marriage in Ohio and other Midwestern states, yet GOP campaigning on cultural issues might strengthen the president’s position with college-educated upper-middle-class voters. Drawing a sharp contrast on social issues reinforces the president’s claim to be the candidate of “enlightenment and progress” against “reaction, bigotry, and hate.” This is the kind of campaign — focused on broad generalities rather than detailed questions concerning the state of the economy, debt and deficits, etc. — that the president wants to run, and it is easy to see why. 

And the president seems to have concluded that he won’t suffer any erosion among African American voters, which is reasonable enough. The fact that President Bush increased his margins among culturally conservative black voters in Ohio from 2000 to 2004 made a significant difference, but he was running against John Kerry, not Barack Obama.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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