Obama’s Gay Marriage Conundrum: Advocates Ask Obama to Speak Now; Political Pragmatists Say Hold Your Peace

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone read, let along fought over the contents of a party platform. Instead, party platforms have become much like the conventions themselves—slicked up media narratives designed to be as bland as possible for an increasingly diminishing audience of party regulars. And once the convention is over, they are largely forgotten. Even off-handed comments made before a hot microphone get more attention than these supposed documents of party priorities.

Occasionally, scuffles will break out, but it has been a while. In 1992, a minor uproar took place on the Republican side of the aisle when a group of pro-choice delegates tried to tone down some of the platform’s harsh language on abortion rights, but they were quickly dismissed by the officials from the George H.W. Bush White House. On the Democratic side, you have to go all the way to the 1980 convention—when Ted Kennedy pushed for a health-care-for-all plank—to find the last major platform fight, according to Alice Germond, the long-time secretary to the Democratic National Committee.

“It is a statement of who we are, what our beliefs are, and how we will address national problems,” Ms. Germond said. “But to be honest with you, I don’t think there are that many Americans who will be waking up at 4:30 in the morning to find out what our party platform is.”

For Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, the platform push is an effort to codify what the Democratic Party implicitly believes about same sex marriage.

“This is where the majority of Democrats are, and it’s where the majority of independents are, and it speaks to the values that the party historically embraces,” he said. “Because we believe it is the right thing to do, and happily, the right thing to do politically, we stepped forward to put the party firmly on record with where the majority of the party already is.”

For Mr. Wolfson, Mr. Obama is already a de facto supporter of same-sex marriage—he noted that the president has already ordered the federal government not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, has called on Congress and the courts to overturn the law and has opposed state efforts to enshrine antigay marriage laws in their constitutions. Last year, he notes, Mr. Obama told supporters at an LGBT fund-raiser that “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country.” And then throw in the fact that at a pair of fund-raisers in New York this month, First Lady Michelle Obama told supporters that a Supreme Court heavy with Obama-appointed justices would permit their children to “love whomever they choose.”

“Has the president connected the dots between what he has said and what follows from it?” Mr. Wolfson said. “That is what we are calling for. But if he has affirmed the bedrock principle that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple—well, ‘every other legal right’ is the right to marry.”

At first, members of President Obama’s campaign scoffed at the effort, although part of their dismissal sounded like they simply resented being pressured on the issue from supposed allies. Now, however, there are signs they are starting to take it seriously. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the White House’s political team has had discussions with leading Democrats about the upsides and downsides of coming out fully in support of gay marriage. And in the few weeks since the effort was launched, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as both New York senators and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have all signed on (Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who actually brought marriage equality to New York State when he pushed a bill to legalize same sex marriage through the Legislature—so far has not.) Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is serving as the chairman of the convention this year, has also come out in favor of it.

Both sides of the debate are able to cite polls saying that their side is correct.

Urging caution, Mr. Cooper said, “Fifty-four percent of African-Americans are not comfortable with same-sex marriage. Thirty-two percent of Latinos [are not]. There sizeable minorities of two key constituency groups. The reason I would urge it not to be incorporated into the party platform is that already Republicans are going to be involved in a very intensive effort suppress voter turnout among key constituencies. We don’t need anything out there that might inadvertently support those efforts.”

While it’s unlikely these voting blocs will fall to Mitt Romney, they could keep voters home in swing states like Ohio and Florida.

Mr. Wolfson however cites the fact that a majority of Democrats are already in favor of marriage equality, young people overwhelmingly support it, and even independents and Catholics, he says, support it.

“This is no longer the third rail that operatives used to think of it as. We are no longer in 1996. We are no longer in 2004. We are no longer even in 2008,” he said. “This is where the center of American politics is today, and the Democratic Party, which has done so much to get it there, should be able to stand with its own values to make the case to bring the country forward.”

What remains unknowable is where the president’s head and heart are. Asked earlier this month during a press conference call about Mr. Villaraigosa’s endorsement of the platform plank, Jim Messina, a top political adviser to the president, declined to speculate on what the party platform would ultimately say.

“Look, we’re in the big-tent party here,” he said, and proceeded to detail Mr. Obama’s “great record on fighting for fundamental fairness for all Americans: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and many other accomplishments we are very, very proud of.”

Still, it is hard to find anyone close to Mr. Obama who honestly takes the president at his word that he is “evolving” on the question of gay marriage—as if somehow the son of two parents whose own union was illegal in many states when he was born and who grew up to be a constitutional law scholar is merely a witness to his own mental transformation on the issue.

“I have no doubt that if the president gets re-elected, that he will come out in support of gay marriage,” said one supporter who has discussed the issue with the president and who asked to remain anonymous to avoid revealing the content of private conversations.

It is this hesitancy, driven by a presumption that an ever-narrower slice of swing voters disapproves of marriage equality, that is the single biggest animator of Mr. Wolfson’s effort.

“In politics there are people who make their living by being risk-adverse,” he said. “There are others who make their living by trying to slice things into narrow little chunks, and there are others who put forward a vision and trust that the American people will respect leadership and authenticity and values—and often it’s those are the ones who change our politics and strengthen our country.”

In the press call, Mr. Messina attempted to deflect the decision away from the president, saying, “You know, there’s a process. There’s not even a delegate platform committee yet. There’s a process to go through this discussion and the DNC will go through that and we will have a platform.”