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On gay rights, a historic shift

To borrow a phrase from the poet T.S. Eliot, it’s likely that the gay-marriage issue will impact the 2012 presidential race not with a bang, but a whimper.

Marriage-equality supporters Teri McClain (left) and Mary Beth Brotski show their approval of the president's remarks at a fund-raising event in Seattle. ELAINE THOMPSON / Associated Press
Marriage-equality supporters Teri McClain (left) and Mary Beth Brotski show their approval of the president's remarks at a fund-raising event in Seattle. ELAINE THOMPSON / Associated PressRead more

To borrow a phrase from the poet T.S. Eliot, it's likely that the gay-marriage issue will impact the 2012 presidential race not with a bang, but a whimper.

President Obama's historic words ("same-sex couples should be able to get married") would have been unthinkable just eight years ago, and that's the point. Full equality for gay people is the new normal. It's the majority sentiment in the polls, a trend that will only strengthen with time. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

There has been much commentary these last few days about how the president's remarks were politically risky, especially in an election year. I disagree. Obama felt comfortable coming out on gay marriage after calculating that such a stance carried little political risk.

Granted, social and religious conservatives will be energized by his remarks, to the point where they'll squelch their qualms about Mitt Romney. But the same is true on the left side of the spectrum. Obama's liberal base is just as likely to shake off its disappointment in him and hail him for taking a giant step into the 21st century. The people who care most fervently about the gay-marriage issue, pro and con, will probably cancel each other out at the ballot box.

And these fervent folks are only a small percentage of the electorate. The vast majority of voters, though increasingly willing to accept married gays in their midst, don't even care about the issue. It barely registers on their list of priorities. Gallup poll editor Frank Newport wrote Thursday: "We ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. Two-thirds mentioned some aspect of the economy. Less than 1 percent specifically mentioned issues relating to gay rights or gay marriage."

That's no surprise. If Obama loses, it won't be because he voiced personal support for marriage equality. What matters this year are the kitchen-table issues, not the specter of gay spouses at neighboring kitchen tables. The very fact that so few people take umbrage is itself stark evidence of social progress.

Nevertheless, the religious right groups have somehow convinced themselves that Obama has now made gay marriage a "defining issue" in this campaign, that Americans will suddenly be roused en masse to cast votes in favor of the traditional family. These groups are deluding themselves. They clearly haven't tracked the historic shifts in mainstream sentiment.

Eight years ago, during the '04 presidential election cycle, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported that Americans opposed gay marriage by a whopping 29 percentage points; today, Pew says Americans support it by four points. It's virtually unprecedented to find a 33-point swing on a hot-button issue in such a short span. And most important of all, from an electoral standpoint, is the sentiment of swing-voting independents. Eight years ago, they were split roughly 50-50 on gay marriage; today, according to Pew, they support it by 14 points. Gallup and other pollsters have tracked this same trend.

We could list all the likely reasons for this historic shift in the zeitgeist — gays living openly and sharing their lives with straight friends and family, the omnipresence of Ellen DeGeneres in daytime middle America — but what matters most is that even Republicans have taken notice. Which is why their reaction to Obama's announcement has bordered on the quiescent.

Romney doesn't want to touch it. On Thursday, he did reiterate his opposition to both gay marriage and civil unions (thus putting himself to the right of Dick Cheney, who has endorsed gay marriage, and George W. Bush, who has endorsed civil unions) — but that was only in response to a question. Otherwise, he's mute. The GOP's House and Senate campaign committees are mute. Top GOP strategists have urged party brethren to remain mute. Heck, even Rick Santorum spoke out only once before falling mute.

What gives? Why isn't the self-appointed party of "family values" knocking Obama for trying to destroy the traditional institution of marriage? Why did the Fox News website quickly pounce on Obama with a headline declaring that he had launched a "war on marriage" — only to quickly purge the headline?

Because Republicans, and their friends at Fox, realize that hammering this issue will make them look more intolerant. Because they know that it's bad politics to buck the political mainstream and advertise that they're on the wrong side of history. Better to just keep quiet. Indeed, the religious right groups, such as the Family Research Council, are doing Romney and the GOP no favors by bringing it up. How is Romney supposed to swing toward the center for the general election if gay-averse conservatives keep tugging him rightward?

Contrast these sounds of silence with the cacophonous noise generated by Republicans eight years ago, when Bush was seeking a second term. Opposition to gay marriage was so endemic that Bush strategist Karl Rove used the issue to stoke turnout. He orchestrated anti-gay-marriage ballot referenda in 11 key states. He circulated anti-gay-marriage fliers in West Virginia and Arkansas, and the artwork told the tale. A man was depicted on one knee in front of another man, in the traditional proposal mode. The caption read, "Allowed." Adjacent to the men was a photo of the Bible. The caption read, "Banned." The flier warned that a vote for the Democrats was a vote for this nightmare scenario.

The fliers were circulated by the Republican National Committee, under the auspices of Rove's handpicked party chairman, Ken Mehlman. Yet today, Mehlman is vivid proof that the zeitgeist has shifted. He came out as a gay man in 2010, and he publicly supports gay marriage. Two months ago, he said: "As I've been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I've learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them."

Obama's path to his announcement was hardly smooth — in the end, he was goaded by Joe Biden, talking out of turn — but he wound up in the sweet spot where doing the right thing is politically safe and centrist. Years from now, he'll be remembered for putting the moral authority of his office behind a worthy cause. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, on the eve of his battle for civil rights, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"

Contact Dick Polman at or follow on Twitter @dickpolman1.

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