In the 2012 edition of the culture wars, a new side is starting on offense.
President Obama’s move to embrace same-sex marriage sets an unmistakable tone for the general election: Democrats don’t feel the need to fear social issues, even ones that have been conservative lynchpins in years past.
Democrats, starting with the one who’s topping the ticket, are the ones inserting talk of gay rights and reproductive rights into the national conversation.
“The First Gay President,” Newsweek’s new cover declares — and for once Democrats aren’t worried about the image that projects.
With a nudge from Vice President Joe Biden last week, the president completed his self-described “evolution” on the subject of same-sex marriage by staking out a personal position that would have been unthinkable for a national politician in previous election cycles.
“For me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president told ABC News‘ Robin Roberts on Wednesday.
And a move that any previous Republican candidate for president would have seen as a rainbow-wrapped gift has been met haltingly by the GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer. Mitt Romney used a weekend speech at Liberty University to declare that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” but he’s shown no signs of wanting to talk about it much more beyond that.
Romney told the Christian Broadcasting Network that while he opposes gay marriage, he’s not sure that position will be a central focus of his campaign.
“I think people of different backgrounds have different issues that they find to be the most compelling, and interesting. So I’m asked about social issues as well as foreign policy issues and economic issues,” Romney said. “I’ll do my very best to connect with the American people on the issues that they care most about.”
Romney, of course, is hoping the economy is far more relevant to the campaign than social issues. That’s primarily a mark of the uncertain jobs and housing markets, but it’s also a measure of the cultural shift among voters.
Barack Obama was on the side of a majority of the American people when he opposed gay marriage at the start of his career in national politics, in 2004. He’s back there again now, having changed his position — a fact Republican strategists know as well as Democrats.
The politics will be more complicated in several battleground states, notably North Carolina, where voters resoundingly moved to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage last week, just a day before the president announced his change of heart.
But voters for whom opposition to same-sex marriage is the primary voting issue almost certainly weren’t Obama voters in the first place. And to look at some early attempts by prominent Republicans to exploit the issue is to squirm.
“Call me cynical,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said at Iowa’s Faith and Freedom Coalition this weekend, “but I wasn’t sure his views on marriage could get any gayer.”
The issue of same-sex marriage will fire up elements of the conservative base this fall, and will have more eloquent speakers than Paul to push it from the right.
For now, though, the president has shifted on a major cultural issue where, polling suggests, demographics are on his side, if not necessarily politics. And the campaign has seen another week elapse where the Obama economy was not front and center.