A Same-Sex Marriage Floor Fight in Charlotte Looms for Obama

North Carolina’s anti-gay-marriage vote moves Democrats closer to a convention battle, writes Matt Taylor.

Allen Breed / AP Photo

The prospect of a floor fight at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., emerged this week as North Carolinians voted Tuesday to pass a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships. That vote came just days after two senior members of the Obama administration separately indicated their support for gay marriage, developments that have increased the pressure on the president—who two years ago described his position on gay marriage as “evolving”—to complete that journey before formally accepting his party’s nomination in September.

“I think this will be a big issue at the convention no matter what,” said Richard Socarides, a Democratic strategist who served as special adviser to the Clinton administration on LGBT issues. “Conventions love controversy. Especially when the issue of the nominee is not in doubt. When you get all those political people together, they’re drawn to a controversy. And there’s going to be an effort to include a marriage-equality plank in the platform.”

“People are going to be upset that this passed in a place Democrats are calling home for the summer,” he said. “So I think they will work harder to get the platform to take a strong stance.”

With polls now showing that a plurality or majority of voters support gay marriage, and that Democratic and younger voters support it by overwhelming margins, the chorus calling for the party to add a freedom-to-marry plank to its platform has grown louder and more prominent—and President Obama’s balancing act on the issue has become more precarious as the volume has gone up.

The push began after Vice President Joe Biden told NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that he is “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” The next day, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on MSNBC that he also backs gay marriage, which led some observers to suggest the statements by administration members were meant to signal the president’s second-term sympathies without announcing a change in his own position that could alienate some religious and African-American Democrats.

While Obama’s campaign indicated the president opposed the North Carolina measure—which passed despite polls showing most North Carolinians support some form of legal recognition for gay couples and didn't understand that the proposal would also ban civil unions and domestic partnerships—he didn’t engage in the fierce debate on the measure, even as former President Bill Clinton made appearances in person and on the airwaves denouncing it.

Obama—who favored same-sex marriage in 1996 when he was running for the Illinois state Senate, opposed it on strategic grounds when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and on religious grounds while running for president in 2008—said in 2010 that the "arc of history" bends toward gay marriage, and that his own views were "evolving."

Some Democratic strategists are still haunted by the belief that gay-marriage amendments on the ballot in swing states like Ohio cost them the 2004 presidential election by driving up evangelical turnout. They want Obama's evolution to occur after November—which seems like a much more difficult delaying act to pull off after the events of the past week. Following Biden’s remarks Sunday, White House officials stressed that the president’s position of supporting civil unions but not gay marriage was unchanged, and insisted that the vice president’s comments were consistent with the president’s position.

"I think the more [Obama] stays silent on this issue the more noise it’s going to create,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, a former head of the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. She called on advocates, though, to turn down or tune out that noise. “Barack Obama’s the guy we gotta elect,” she said. “To turn his convention into a zoo does not help us.”

Obama aides regularly rebut questions about same-sex marriage with a checklist of ways the president has advanced gay rights. Among them: the elimination of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gay and lesbian service members from serving openly in the military, the Justice Department's refusal to stick up for the Defense of Marriage Act in court, and smaller measures aimed at strengthening legal rights for same-sex couples.

But the comments from the vice president, who may launch a presidential bid of his own in 2016, seemed to go past Obama’s position, and to line up instead with younger Democrats and potential rivals in that election, including two governors, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O'Malley of Maryland, who have signed into law same-sex marriage bills in their respective states.

Mitt Romney’s decision last year to sign a pledge to support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman makes it unlikely that many gay voters would defect to the Republican camp. But LGBT groups may not support Obama as actively as they did four years ago. Even before Biden’s remarks, there were signs that gay fundraisers—who comprise one in six of the campaign’s biggest bundlers, and whose support has been seen as crucial to the campaign as Wall Street money has flagged—had begun to hold back support over frustrations with Obama.

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“The Biden comments are generally helpful,” said Socarides. “That said, I think the effort to clarify them, as if they needed clarification, is probably irksome to some, myself included. I think what this demonstrates is it’s going to be impossible to continue to finesse this non-answer for another six months.”

Republicans, meantime, are giddy at the prospect of prolonged Democratic infighting as they parse presidential non-answers.

“I’m perfectly happy to have them fight amongst themselves for weeks on end,” said GOP media consultant Rick Wilson. “In states like Virginia and North Carolina, there are two audiences Obama needs to get to win. He needs to hold his black-vote percentage where it is in the low 90s, and he needs to win white Southern Democrats who are still a bit iffy about him.”

Polls have shown that some otherwise party-line Democrats, particularly African-Americans, remain culturally uneasy with gay marriage. While the GOP is unlikely to lose supporters by reiterating its long-standing opposition to gay nuptials, Republicans see Obama alienating some black supporters if he embraces same-sex marriage, and losing some LGBT support if he continues to keep his distance. “I think Obama is reflecting a very deep division inside the Democratic Party that no one [on his campaign] wants to talk about,” Wilson said.

What is unclear is if the growing number of same-sex marriage backers in the Democratic establishment—including iconic figures like Obama for America co-chair Caroline Kennedy (who is claimed as a supporter by those pushing for the gay-marriage plank), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—will be able to create the air of inevitability needed to force Obama’s hand and get marriage equality into the Democratic platform.

“Do I think they can get 15 percent of the platform committee to support the issuing of a minority report in favor of marriage equality? Absolutely,” said veteran Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who worked for President Jimmy Carter when Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged him from the left for their party's presidential nomination in 1980.

The Obama campaign, Devine said, “will have to decide, do we want a big public fight over this, or should we just let it happen and work on crafting language that we’re comfortable with?”