The Biden gambit

Gaffe or gambit?  Vice President Joe Biden created a stir on Sunday when he appeared to endorse the legalization of gay marriage, and then confusion reigned as the White House tried to downplay Biden’s remarks.  Biden’s penchant for making gaffes certainly would explain this as a wandering-off-the-reservation moment.  In my column for The Week, however, I argue that too many coincidences have intersected for this to be a simple gaffe.  Instead, it’s a deliberate gambit that extends the strategy of distractions from Team Obama:

Nor do the coincidences end there. This comes just after the much-publicized departure of foreign-policy adviser Richard Grenell from the Romney campaign. The hiring of the openly-gay Grenell had drawn some criticism from social-conservative groups, but he had also been supported by national security hawks like John Bolton, who tried to talk Grenell out of resigning, as did Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, Grenell’s departure late last week allowed the Obama campaign to paint Romney and Republicans as intolerant.

The timing of Biden’s statement looks less like a gaffe, therefore, and more like a way to keep the controversy alive. That may put Obama in a slightly tougher position, assuming that Obama isn’t planning a conversion over the summer, but is that a good assumption? Obama has a crisis in enthusiasm on his left, to the extent that he recently lamented to a group of fundraisers that Republican control of the House has forced him to be more centrist than he prefers. Independents do not find same-sex marriage off-putting in general, and few social conservatives plan to vote for Obama anyway. There is very little risk for Obama in a summer conversion to same-sex marriage, and Biden’s statement could very well have been a test balloon to see what damage ensued, if any. If Obama sensed significant damage, then Biden’s aptitude for gaffes would provide a handy cover.

Even more likely, though, Biden’s gambit was an attempt to keep the media preoccupied with issues other than jobs and the economy. It’s also no coincidence that this eruption came just 48 hours after another disappointing jobs report. Suddenly, though, the national media seems a lot more interested in an issue where, strictly speaking, the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction. Before Halperin asked Duncan about Biden’s comments, Joe Scarborough told Duncan that Halperin plans to ask all of Obama’s Cabinet secretaries about their position on same-sex marriage. With the number of jobs in the U.S. declining the last two months, economic indicators showing the nation slipping further into stagnation, and the Senate refusing for more than three years to even pass a budget, aren’t there other, more salient topics to ask Cabinet secretaries?

In that light, Biden’s comment looks more like an extension of the Obama campaign strategy of continuous distractions. Whether it’s the Buffett Rule, the so-called war on women, or Seamus the roof-riding Dog, the Obama campaign will pull out all of the stops to keep the focus in this campaign away from jobs and the economy. Don’t be surprised if that includes a re-election campaign conversion on same-sex marriage by Obama — and weeks of media attention to the sideshow rather than the issues that matter most to voters.

However, National Journal’s Beth Reinhard believes that Biden has put the Obama administration into a vise.  Backing legalization of same-sex marriage would gin up enthusiasm among younger voters, but Reinhard argues that it might cost them enthusiasm among African-American voters, and votes in the swing states Obama desperately needs:

The chance that President Obama will finish “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage before November is about as slim as the winning margin that he or Mitt Romney can assume in this horse race. …

In national polls, only a narrow majority of Americans support gay marriage. Many of the toss-up states that Obama needs to win a second term — including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have passed laws or constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. In another battleground state, Iowa voters in 2010 ousted three Supreme Court justices who had legalized gay marriage the previous year.

A big reason the issue is tricky for Obama is that two of the constituencies that were pivotal to his 2008 victory – young voters and African-Americans — are at odds. While gay-rights advocates frame marriage as a civil-rights issue, many churchgoing African-Americans approach it in a religious context. In North Carolina for example, an Elon University Poll in February found that only 35 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Among black voters, the percentage supporting the ban jumped to 46 percent.

The president’s campaign put out a statement in March saying he did not support the ballot measure, but he has not personally addressed it.

That posits a couple of questionable assumptions, though.  First, it’s unimaginable that enthusiasm for Obama among black voters would suffer much, even if he reversed himself on gay marriage.  Even a slight reduction in turnout would be a rather doubtful assumption.  If Obama’s hold on this demographic is that fragile, he’s already lost the election.  The swing-state vote is a more realistic concern, but the current vacillation won’t help if those voters are keying on this topic, either, and they almost certainly aren’t.  In February, Gallup’s national poll showed gay marriage at the bottom of the priority list for voters; it was dead last among independents and second-to-last for Republicans, and last among Democrats as well.

In short, it’s not an issue that people remotely connect to the 2012 election, or at least haven’t until now.  It does however have some impact on Obama’s fundraising, as Greg Sargent pointed out last night:

Some leading gay and progressive donors are so angry over President Obama’s refusal to sign an executive order barring same sex discrimination by federal contractors that they are refusing to give any more money to the pro-Obama super PAC, a top gay fundraiser’s office tells me. In some cases, I’m told, big donations are being withheld.

Jonathan Lewis, the gay philanthropist and leading Democratic fundraiser, is one of many gay advocates who has been working behind the scenes to pressure Obama to change his mind. When Obama decided against the executive order last month, arguing that he would pursue a legislative solution instead, advocates were furious — such a solution will never pass Congress, the executive order has been a priority for advocates for years, and the move smacked of a political cave to conservatives who will not support Obama no matter what he does.

Now these and other donors are beginning to withold money from Priorities USA, the main pro-Obama super PAC, out of dismay over the president’s decision. (Some of these donors have already maxed out to the Obama campaign, I’m told.) It’s the first indication that areas in which Obama is at odds with gay advocates — and in fairness, his record on gay rights has been very good — could dampen overall fundraising.

Expect the Obama campaign and the White House to continue stoking this “confusion,” both for the distraction from the stagnant economy that it provides and as a means to keep those donors’ checkbooks open for a late donation surge.  Also expect an endorsement from Barack Obama of gay marriage by the time of the Democratic Convention.  If subsequent jobs reports are as lousy as those we’ve seen in March and April, I’d expect a lot more of these kinds of “gaffes” from administration officials, although not so many as to undermine the argument that Obama will be a leader in the push for same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, we’ll just keep talking about jobs and the economy, and see if the media takes the hint.

Update: Wandering off the reservation, not registration.  Also, Amendment One goes to the voters today, not in November.

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David Strom 10:01 AM on February 04, 2023