Anyone who thinks the marriage equality issue is a distraction from “real issues” like the economy or income inequality or Afghanistan, or that the president’s statement yesterday is meaningless substantively or politically, should probably find a real good book to read for the next few days. The chattering classes are going to be full of back-and-forth discussion of the fallout from Obama’s action and the reaction we are already seeing from conservatives, and there’s not much you can do about it.
I’ve already got a reaction piece up at TNR that offers a perspective on how to look at this issue politically. There’s a lot we don’t know about the priority various categories of Americans assign to this issue, particularly at a time when the fundamental salience of economic concerns is much higher than is usual. What we do know is (1) Obama was facing a crossroads on this subject between now and the Democratic convention, and was holding a position increasingly out of synch with that of other Democrats, not just elites but a growing majority of rank-and-file voters, and (2) the furor Obama has unleashed, particularly from the Christian Right elements that Mitt Romney was in the midst of yoking to his campaign, is going to create a serious strategic challenge for a Republican presidential campaign that really, really, wants swing voters to think about nothing but Obama’s record on the economy and the size and competence of government.
Was this move risky for Obama? Its timing pretty much answers that question, coming a day after voters in a battleground state enacted a draconian same-sex marriage (and civil unions!) ban by a landslide. And even though public opinion is moving relentlessly in the direction of acceptance of legalized same-sex marriage, it’s “evolving” just like Obama has been, and it will be noted that gay marriage remains unpopular for one key element of Obama’s electoral coalition (African-Americans), and problematic for another (Hispanics), while making his effort to hang onto a decent minority of non-college educated white man even harder than before.
But the fact remains that Obama’s made his decision, and now it’s his opponents who have to figure out what’s next. Also at TNR, Noam Scheiber thinks Mitt Romney is unusually ill-suited to serve as the leader of an anti-gay marriage crusade. At HuffPost, Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, heatedly disputes the common belief that anti-gay marriage sentiment tipped the scales for W. in Ohio or anywhere else. And just about everyone–including even Cultural Right crusader Phyllis Schlafly–seems to understand that making this issue a big deal will position Republicans even more poorly than they already are with the younger voters whose support they will someday need.
From a purely strategic point of view, it’s going to be an interesting debate.