Romney wouldn’t be Romney if he didn’t have at least some questions about his beliefs lurking in the past. Gay issues are no exception. In his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney told the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative organization, that “equality for gays and lesbians [should] be a mainstream concern.” He also said that the Clinton administration’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy was “a step in the right direction.”
It all comes down to the Supreme Court. Activists involved in gay rights, marriage, and reproduction know that despite all their wrangling over state laws or ballot initiatives, their issues eventually will land at the feet of the high court’s justices. As such, a Supreme Court appointment is one of the most influential and far-reaching actions a president can take. Obama already has had that privilege, picking two women—Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—to fill vacant Supreme Court spots. When Obama was in the Senate, he also voted against George W. Bush’s nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. (In contrast, Romney has said that Alito and Roberts are ideal justices.)
According to Obama, the most important characteristic of a Supreme Court justice is a dedication to correcting injustices against the disadvantaged and powerless. “We need somebody who’s got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges,” he said in 2007.
According to Romney, the most important characteristic for a Supreme Court justice is restraint. He scoffs at any notion that constitutional principles can “evolve.” On his campaign website, Romney promises to select judges who “exhibit a genuine appreciation for the text, structure, and history of our Constitution and interpret the Constitution and the laws as they are written.”
Obama and Romney also diverge on religion’s role in government, with Romney offering a slightly more sympathetic ear to religious institutions. Romney bemoans the idea that the United States is becoming a “secular” nation. “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith on which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion. But I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty,” he said in 2007 in a much-anticipated speech about his Mormon faith at President George H.W. Bush’s presidential library in Texas.
Obama is a pluralist and pragmatist when it comes to religion in politics. The “religiously motivated” should “translate their concerns into universal, rather than specific, values,” he said in a speech to the progressive Christian Sojourners in 2006. “To base one’s life on such uncompromising [religious] commitments may be sublime, but to base our policymaking on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.”
Obama’s clash with religious groups over the mandate on birth-control coverage illustrates his unwillingness to bend for the sake of a religious belief that not everyone shares. But he also isn’t a strict secularist, as Romney suggests. Obama has retained the White House’s office of faith-based initiatives, a controversial holdover from the Bush administration, after he decreed that any “explicitly religious” activities from participants must be completely separate.
Neither Romney nor Obama has been active on gun control. Both favor an assault-weapons ban but have done little to push for it. Romney favors keeping regulations for law-abiding gun owners to a minimum, but he does not want to overturn current gun-control laws. Obama doesn’t disagree—although he wants faster and more robust background checks for gun buyers.