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The New Democratic Litmus Test

Obama likely will be the last Democrat to win party's presidential nomination without backing same-sex marriage.

President Obama delivers his remarks at the Human Rights Campaign’s 15th annual national dinner in Washington last October.(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

photo of Reid Wilson
February 18, 2012

Perhaps no flip flop in his career has caused Mitt Romney more grief among conservatives than his evolution on abortion, from a pro-choice gubernatorial candidate to a pro-life presidential contender. His struggle to convince activists of his conservative bona fides underscores the fact that toeing the pro-life line is a requirement for a Republican presidential candidate. It is a litmus test in the most political sense of the phrase.

After decades of avoiding what was once a toxic issue, Democrats are on the verge of establishing a new litmus test, one that will demonstrate just how quickly and dramatically the political landscape will change: When a new crop of Democrats run for the White House in 2016, the top contenders will likely all embrace same-sex marriage the way Republicans embrace a pro-life stand.

Just as there is little room for a pro-choice Republican in national politics, it's becoming increasingly likely that President Obama will be the last Democrat to win his party's presidential nomination without supporting same-sex marriage.


Several of the Democrats who might run in 2016 are already to the left of him on gay marriage. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped shepherd a bill through the Republican-controlled state Senate in his first year on the job. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley led the push to pass similar legislation; he'll sign the bill next week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been one of the most aggressive in pushing her party to embrace gay marriage. "It's all about time," she told The Advocate in a February cover story. "And to those who mock me on this subject, I say to them, 'The inconceivable to you is the inevitable to us.'"

Contemplate just how quickly times have changed. In 2004, Republicans helped put gay marriage bans on the ballot in eleven states (the measures passed in all of them, including liberal Oregon). Sen. John Kerry, the party's presidential nominee, said he opposed gay marriage in 2004, though he favored civil unions. That was the same stand both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took in 2008; today, Obama says his thoughts on same-sex unions are evolving, but he is still on record backing civil unions over marriage.

Gay marriage advocates have faced political rejection for years. Now, their success rate is picking up. Early victories came in the courts; both in Massachusetts (in 2003) and in Iowa (in 2009), courts said denying marriage to same-sex couples was discriminatory. The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up a case that challenges the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.

More recently, state legislatures have begun allowing gay marriage; earlier this month, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill legalizing same-sex unions, making it the fifth state to have passed a marriage bill into law and the seventh to allow gay marriage overall (Maryland is the eighth).

In recent years, opinion polls have shown the general public is more accepting of gay marriage than politicians -- even Democrats -- have been. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in October showed the nation closely divided on the question: 46 percent said they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 44 percent are opposed. That's a dramatic change from just a decade ago, when 57 percent stood opposed to allowing gays to wed.

And the number of Americans who favor gay marriage will increase over time. The Pew survey found younger Americans are significantly more likely to accept gay marriage; 59 percent of the Millenial generation and 50 percent of Generation X say they favor allowing gay marriage, while just 42 percent of Baby Boomers and 33 percent of the Silent Generation say they're okay with it. As younger Americans begin taking over a larger share of the population, their attitudes will carry greater heft.

Expect to see that greater acceptance reflected in the Democratic primary in 2016. According to a number of Democrats I spoke with in the last few days, it's almost certain candidates for president will openly embrace same-sex marriage.

"In the Democratic Party, it has become something of a core issue, and politicians are reacting to where a majority of people are," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who likened same-sex marriage to anti-miscegenation laws that prevented marriage between two people of a different race.

Finney, who is herself biracial, sees a parallel: "I see this as no different from anti-miscegenation laws which prevented my parents from legally being married in their home states. The wording of the arguments against the legality of a marriage between a black person and a white person is almost identical."

What's more, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, being in favor of gay marriage pays: The gay community is growing as a fundraising force within the Democratic Party, rivaling environmentalists, lawyers and other financially flush elements of the Democratic coalition. President Obama has already attended at least two fundraisers specifically aimed at the gay community; any candidate who hopes to replace him will need access to those same wealthy donors.

Not every strategist agreed that gay marriage would serve as a litmus test among Democrats in four years. After all, Obama is still evolving (although many gay rights advocates believe he will come out in favor of same-sex marriage if he wins a second term). And some of the party's potential national contenders, like Clinton and Sen. Mark Warner, don't openly support gay marriage.

Meanwhile, there are indications that opposing same-sex marriage is as strict a litmus test for Republicans as supporting unions is for Democrats. This week, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill to allow gays to wed; Gov. Chris Christie, who has never been much of a social conservative, has promised to veto the legislation, a move that will keep him sufficiently conservative if he decides to eventually seek national office.

But for an issue that some Democrats believe cost them the 2004 election, it's shocking just how much public attitudes surrounding gay marriage have changed; eight years after Kerry lost, most up-and-coming leaders within the Democratic Party have fully embraced same-sex marriage. As one Democratic strategist put it, it's hard to think of another civil rights paradigm that has shifted so quickly, in any country, at any point in history.

The way likely presidential contenders Cuomo and O'Malley have embraced gay marriage is a telling indication of the issue's acceptance. What will say more about whether gay marriage is now a Democratic litmus test is how those who have been reluctant to support gay marriage, like Warner, handle their opposition -- or, like Obama, their own evolutions.

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