President Obama’s recent endorsement of marriage equality is historic and noteworthy for plenty of obvious reasons.
But looking back just eight years and examining how marriage was used during the 2004 election illustrates just how dramatically things have changed — and what a stroke of political genius Obama’s announcement really was.
Back then, President Bush was running for re-election against Democrat John Kerry. Eleven states had gay marriage bans on the ballot, a strategy pushed by Karl Rove and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. They were: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah. All passed with overwhelming support; all but two (Michigan and Oregon) were approved with more than 60 percent of the vote. Researchers have since noted that those marriage amendments did not increase Republican voter turnout compared to the other 39 states so Bush’s re-election cannot be blamed on them. But there’s no question that gay and lesbian couples were very much in the crosshairs eight years ago.
At the time, President Bush did a masterful job of using the issue against his opponent. Kerry twisted himself into knots trying to rationalize his opposition to a federal constitutional amendment, while supporting a state amendment in Massachusetts. Former President Clinton reportedly advised Kerry to support the federal amendment advocated by Bush. (Clinton’s people denied that claim, but widely respected Democratic consultant Bob Shrum wrote in his book that Clinton offered that piece of cynical advice to Kerry.)
The Democrats were caught off guard and had no discernible or intellectually honest and consistent response.
Just eight short years later, who could have predicted the new, radically altered landscape? Mehlman is openly gay and working to advance marriage equality; Bill Clinton, Vice President Biden, Laura Bush and Dick Cheney support marriage rights for gays; the nation’s first black president — along with the NAACP — supports it, too.
What’s brilliant and gratifying about Obama’s announcement is that he has turned the tables on the Republicans: They are now on the defensive, caught off guard by the swift-moving current of progressive change on this issue. Asked about Obama’s marriage support, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Eric Fehrnstrom appeared flustered and tripped over himself trying not to offend gays and sound like a dinosaur. Romney supports a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, but has tried to soften the anti-gay rhetoric, knowing it doesn’t resonate with independent voters who will likely decide this election.
Obama’s announcement has inspired — and will continue to inspire — many others from diverse backgrounds to get off the fence and back equality. From Steny Hoyer to Jay-Z, the nation is listening to our thoughtful president and finding the courage to support our full participation in society.
So, as we gather this week to celebrate an especially joyous Pride season, let us thank President Obama and pledge to work and vote for his second term. The biggest threat to the LGBT movement in this country is Mitt Romney, an unprincipled flip-flopper who has signed a pledge to support a constitutional ban on our marriages.