Joe Biden's Marriage Maneuver: A Television Two-Step

It is a fine political art, seeming to take a position without really doing so. But after Vice President Joe Biden came out in support of gay marriage on a Sunday talk show appearance, the Obama team has taken the opportunity to attack Mitt Romney—as the president himself stays tight-lipped.

I have no doubt that Barack Obama would come out for gay marriage tomorrow if he thought he could get away with it. For the president to say he’s “evolving” is his wink-wink way of assuring his supporters that he privately agrees with them but has to keep his lip zipped until after he’s safely reelected.

Joe Biden has now taken half a step further, hiding behind the fact that he is merely vice president of the United States.

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Biden uttered the words without apparent qualification.

“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” he told David Gregory.”And frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.”

In a conference call with reporters Monday, senior adviser David Axelrod tried to brush off Biden's remarks on Meet the Press, saying they were "entirely consistent" with the president's position that gay couples "are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties" as heterosexual couples. Axelrod even seemed to go a step further, saying that "when people are married, we ought to recognize those marriages."

There is absolutely no question that Biden’s response was cleared by the White House. Vice presidents are not allowed to freelance on talk shows, especially on such a sensitive issue. So Obama was sending out Biden to further mollify the gay community without having to actually take a stand himself.

But the "evolving" president isn't proposing to do anything for gay couples other than having administration officials offer rhetorical support—a politically safe way of signaling that Obama is sympathetic to this important Democratic constituency. And what a coincidence: Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed gay marriage on Morning Joe, one day after Biden's appearance. Orchestrated? Could be.

But the lack of an official policy switch didn't stop the campaign from going after Mitt Romney on the issue. "There couldn't be a starker contrast," Axelrod said, slamming what he called Romney's "backwards-looking" approach. Ax noted that Romney "believes we need a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage," and said the former governor has "funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California," where the issue is tied up in the courts.

In the last year, New York and Maryland have joined what are now a half-dozen states that have adopted gay marriage. We have come a long way from 2004, when George Bush ran for reelection by pushing a constitutional amendment to ban such marriages (and then quickly dropped the issue). Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, had signaled his independence on the matter, but the only question was how hard-line the Bush administration would be against same-sex marriage.

As the culture has shifted—faster than almost anyone would have imagined possible—most national Republicans have abandoned marriage as a wedge issue. You don’t see Mitt Romney bringing it up. The reality of gay and lesbian couples getting hitched in numerous states has proven less threatening than the anticipatory rhetoric.

But polls, including a Pew survey last November, show the public is pretty evenly divided on the issue. With the Catholic Church taking a firm stand against gay marriage, some of the opposition is rooted in religious views. And many states are a long way from blessing such unions. North Carolina votes Tuesday on an amendment to ban gay marriage. (Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, has made robo-calls opposing it.)

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In such a climate, the president would be asking for a headache—and possibly reignite the culture wars—if he openly embraced gay marriage. So he had Joe Biden do it on Sunday morning television instead, hoping to reap the benefits without the political pain.

Romney's camp, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for comment.

On the call, Axelrod and Jim Messina also portrayed Romney as a relentlessly negative campaigner, saying nearly 90 percent of his advertising and that of the pro-Romney super PACs have been negative. Axelrod claimed that by next week, Obama will have spent more on positive ads than Romney has spent on his entire campaign.

Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg responded with a generic statement: "President Obama would like for voters to believe he hasn't been president for the last three years. Americans are disappointed in President Obama's liberal policies that haven't made their lives any better ... Mitt Romney will get our country back on track and stop the middle-class squeeze of the Obama economy."

Something tells me Romney isn't anxious to engage on the marriage issue.