Unemployment, bank bailouts, failed wars, tax cuts for billionaires — all of the concerns that have swirled around the ether for months evaporated this week, replaced by just one topic: gay marriage.
Suddenly, something that, it would seem, affects a small minority of the population has become the central, overriding issue of the 2012 US Presidential Election.
The economy be damned, I guess. This election really is going to be about the soul of America.
But what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
Vice President Joe Biden started the firestorm on Sunday with his off-the-reservation comments to morning talk shows that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage.
This left the president a bit exposed — his “evolving” views on the issue now looked like mere equivocation, a very Obama-like attempt to placate all sides.
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One friend of mine calls him “the Great Spelunker,” because, as he explained, “Obama caves every chance he gets.”
So on Wednesday, Barack Obama went on ABC News to declare that he supports same-sex marriage. He further clarified that he had been intending to do this all along, Biden’s actions had just speeded things up a little.
Biden has since apologized for putting the president on the spot; Obama has graciously forgiven him, at least that is the message coming out of the White House.
But the fallout from the past few days is going to be severe.
Opinion is divided on whether his stance on same-sex marriage will help or hurt Obama in the election campaign. Some say it will energize his base, others insist that swing states may just swing right away from a president who wants to redefine marriage.
The media — at least the “liberal elite” media that seems to encompass everything but Fox News — tripped over itself in praising Obama for his bold stance. The word “historic” was tossed around liberally, and CNN’s John Avlon called it “profiles in courage.”
The decision was examined from every possible angle, and the possible effects also came in for prolonged scrutiny.
But the results are, well, confusing.
ABC News quoted Florida Representative Allen West, who warned that the president could lose the support of the conservative African-American community over the issue.
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The Daily Beast, by contrast, posited that African Americans would change their stance on same-sex marriage to support the president.
The other side pounced on it like vultures on fresh kill. Rick Santorum, who has transformed himself into the Republican attack dog now that he is no longer in the running for the nomination, sent out a fairly vicious email Thursday:
“Yesterday was historic. And not in a good way,” wrote Santorum, or his publicists. “President Obama took one more major step to dismantle the American values we all share by announcing his opposition to traditional marriage.
“Yesterday was clearly a tragic day for America and a tragic day for all those who believe in traditional, conservative values,” he concluded.
Romney himself has been subdued on the issue — he is trying to return focus to the economy, where he thinks he has a better chance of winning. He is also fighting allegations that he was at the center of a bullying campaign in high school, in which he and others supposedly held down a student presumed to be gay and forcibly cut his hair.
Romney has said he has no recollection of the incident, but vaguely apologized “if anyone was hurt … or offended” by his high school “pranks.”
After the fuss subsides, the campaign may continue normally — whatever is normal in this crazy contest — but I think that this will stand as a defining moment for Obama.
A dear friend of mine wrote to me yesterday with his thoughts on the issue. He is well-educated, thoughtful, politically engaged, and gay:
“I have not been a fan of Obama over the last several years. I think he bungled the stimulus, bungled health care, bungled the Wall St regulations, bungled the issue of raising the debt limit... He seems more interested in not offending anyone and has lacked leadership on issue after issue.
“Then he came out in favor of gay marriage, and it has altered my opinion. I actually think that politically it was ill-advised. The Republicans will turn this election into a referendum on gay marriage: Is this the America you want? Vote for Romney and a traditional America, or vote for Obama and an uncertain, unrecognizable America.”
Obama has since capitalized on his announcement at a star-studded fundraiser in Hollywood that will net his campaign nearly $15 million, calling his endorsement of same-sex marriage a “logical extension” of his vision for the country.
But whether George Clooney and friends can make up for the thousands of Americans who will shun the president for his stance remains to be seen.