April 19, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Many a smart head was scratched last week when the White House announced that President Obama will not be signing an employment non-discrimination order before the November election. They were right to be confused: after all, many Americans believe that such protections for LGBT employees already exist, and when told they do not, voters of all different political and social stripes support such a policy by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
Why, then, did the White House punt? In an insightful post published yesterday, Towleroad’s Ari Ezra Waldman posits two theories, one based on perceived electoral necessities and another based on the administration’s distaste for executive orders in general. On the latter claim, Waldman points out, correctly, that progressives should be wary of placing broad unitary power in the executive: an ENDA-like executive order signed by President Obama could easily have been signed back out of existence by a future president. Of course, there is an important argument to be made that taking such an action is the right move regardless, and it is worth noting that, for any president, an executive order that would revoke protections against discrimination would be an unwise political move.
But it is Waldman’s first theory, the idea that the Obama campaign backed away from the executive order in order to “minimize off-message disruptions,” that I want to dig into a little further. As he writes:
Any campaign that sees the nondiscrimination executive order as off-message or a disruption is living in 2004, not 2012. Pro-gay positions simply do not have the kind of negative traction with the broader conservative movement that they once did: anti-gay boycotts are failing; Republicans who vote for marriage recognition are winning primaries, elections, and raising enormous sums of money; majorities support marriage recognition even when survey takers are told that it would mean a “redefinition” of marriage; and schools are becoming more sensitive to identity expression and the needs of LGBT students, to name just a few examples.
This isn’t just a qualitative assertion, it’s quantitative as well. When asked in a brand-new Pew Research Center poll about their concerns going into the 2012 election, respondents overwhelming placed social issues as their lowest priorities. On marriage equality, only 28 percent stated that it was be “very important” in deciding who they vote for, and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume that at least some of the 28 percent is composed of people who feel very strongly both in support of and against marriage rights, and would be unlikely to change their minds no matter what Obama (or Romney) did.
Nonetheless, as Jonathan Bernstein points out in the Washington Post, Democratic Senate candidates are for the most part avoiding the issue. Only two of the Democrats running for non-incumbent seats in the Senate (Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy) mention supporting marriage equality on their websites. That’s not to say the others aren’t in support of the issue, just that they don’t see it as something to be advertised in their campaign messaging.
How do we overcome this disconnect in the Democratic party when it comes to whether or not marriage equality is an electoral liability? Time will probably have the greatest effect: regardless of the results of the 2012 election, there is little debate as to whether or not the Democratic party will formally endorse marriage equality in 2016. Many of the stars of the party who are already being named as possible contenders for that election, such as Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley, have strong records in favor of equal rights on the issue.
But this is 2012, and the drubbing of 2010 no doubt looms large in the minds of Democrats. The party (and Obama in particular) can choose to play it safe for this year, afraid to give conservatives and evangelicals a reason to coalesce behind Mitt Romney. That’s an understandable way to look at it. But in 2012, that kind of caution may not be necessary anymore.