Voters planning to choose their president based solely on abortion or gay rights can tune out all campaign rhetoric from now until November: If you support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, you are voting for President Obama. If you oppose those two things, you are voting for Mitt Romney.
Reproduction and homosexuality, the bookends of the loosely defined concept of “social issues,” are fundamentally different from more dispassionate topics such as economics or foreign policy. On economics, everyone agrees on the objective—growth and jobs are good; recession and unemployment are bad—and the debate centers on how to get to that goal. Social issues, by contrast, conjure up strong, gut-level emotions and deeply held convictions in voters who disagree fiercely about where the country should go.
There is no middle ground, said Concerned Women for America President Penny Young Nance, an antiabortion, traditional-marriage conservative. To illustrate, she told National Journal about her conversation with a would-be candidate who “really didn’t want to make a decision” about abortion. “He wanted to have it both ways. He was miserable. I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to choose. Because otherwise neither side is going to like you, and we’re going to keep harassing you.’ ”
Both Obama and Romney understand this political dynamic, which is why it is so easy to draw distinctions between them. Obama supports abortion rights; Romney opposes them. Obama backs gay marriage; Romney opposes it. Obama rejects a “cramped and narrow” constitutional view; Romney says that the Constitution is “timeless and defining” and that interpretations of it cannot “evolve.”
The antiabortion and abortion-rights movements have not always been comfortable with their chosen presidential candidates this year, but they can easily rally their troops around Romney or Obama by comparing their guy to the other guy.
Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to find “common ground” on abortion, emphasizing the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies and encourage adoption. As president, however, he has consistently supported abortion rights in ways that have alienated the antiabortion movement. For example, he cut off federal support for a women’s health program in Texas because the state Legislature blocked groups such as Planned Parenthood from participating in it. Republicans, including Romney, decried the move. Planned Parenthood’s political wing endorsed Obama in May and launched a $1.4 million ad campaign saying that Romney is “out of touch and wrong for women.”
Yet abortion-rights groups were furious with Obama when he caved (all too easily, they say) by allowing insurance coverage for abortion to be stripped from his health care law. Abortion “is a common and necessary aspect of health care. One in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. If you have a heart condition or breast cancer, it costs seven to 10 thousand dollars,” said National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill.
Still, Obama’s position on abortion was never in question. Romney’s thinking on abortion, by contrast, can most generously be described as evolving. In 2002, Romney said he supported state funding of abortion through Medicaid. In 1994, he ran for Senate as an abortion-rights candidate. He claims now that he has always personally opposed abortion and that his earlier, softer political stance stemmed from governing in a state supportive of abortion rights.
Romney’s conversion to a solid antiabortion position occurred in 2004 and 2005, around the time he began contemplating a presidential bid. He says that his ideas gelled after discussing the rudiments of embryonic stem cells with scientists. Shortly thereafter, he vetoed state legislation allowing a “morning-after” birth-control drug to be sold over the counter. The Massachusetts Legislature overrode his veto.
Even now, Romney’s position can be confusing. He refused to sign a pledge that would have committed him to appointing only antiabortion Cabinet members. He appeased social conservatives later by promising to choose an antiabortion vice presidential candidate, which he did with his selection of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. He also wrote his own abortion pledge, published last year in National Review, promising to get rid of government funding for abortion and to support legislation “to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.”
Social conservatives maintain they are OK with Romney’s abortion position, although they are invoking a trust-but-verify approach. “I felt the process of him changing his mind was authentic. The way he articulates the results is also authentic,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. “But if we did not have his very strong solid commitment on paper, if I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be quite as secure.”
The political conversation about contraception revolves almost entirely around Obama’s 2010 health care law, which includes birth control as part of the preventive care that insurance companies must cover for free. Religious institutions protested the requirement, and Obama subsequently exempted them from paying for contraception coverage for their employees. Insurers must still provide the coverage.
Democratic-leaning women’s groups say that Obama demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to their cause through his health care law. “Women are charged more for health care, more per paycheck,” said National Partnership for Women and Families President Debra Ness, whose group advocates for women’s access to all reproductive services, including abortion. “That form of discrimination is huge, and not enough women understand it.”
Antiabortion advocates are horrified by Obama’s health care law, and they applaud Romney’s repeated statements that it should be overturned. Without the flap over the health care law, Romney’s position on contraception probably wouldn’t be as clear. As governor, he didn’t have anything to say about a similar Massachusetts law that required coverage for birth control. He told an Ohio news station this year that he was uncomfortable with politicians getting involved in what should be private deliberations between a husband and wife. “I’m not going there,” he said.
Romney denounced the preventive-care coverage mandate and Obama’s religious exemption in a primary debate in February. “Insurance companies now have to provide these same things, and, obviously, the Catholic Church will end up paying for them,” he said.
The response made it easier for antiabortion groups to support Romney. “It is a clear dividing line in undermining our organization and women who agree with us,” Dannenfelser said of the health care law. “That provides contrast. Contrast is a gift in politics.”
Obama has always been a supporter of equal treatment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, but it wasn’t until May that he definitively stated that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.” For years before that pivotal moment, including throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said that civil unions were sufficient to confer all the same rights on gay couples that opposite-sex married couples enjoy. His change of heart drew cheers from gay and lesbian voters and resulted in an immediate uptick in their campaign contributions.
The LGBT community is one of several constituencies that turned out in droves to support Obama in 2008 and subsequently had gripes with his administration. Yet even before Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement, he came through for the gay community. He doggedly advocated for the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He signed the repeal in December 2010. He also declared that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Obama ordered federal agencies to give same-sex partners of employees the same benefits that spouses would receive, and he banned discrimination based on gender identity in federal workplaces.
Romney rejects almost all of Obama’s stances on gay issues. He opposes gay marriage and has pledged to appoint an attorney general who would reverse Obama’s position on the Defense of Marriage Act. The only area in which Romney has wavered is on adoption by same-sex couples. He suggested this year that it was “fine.” He backtracked almost immediately, saying only that it was legal for gay couples to adopt.
Romney wouldn’t be Romney if he didn’t leave at least some questions about his beliefs lurking. 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. A Supreme Court appointment, therefore, 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.
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. “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.
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 isn’t a strict secularist, as Romney suggests. The president 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 gun-control laws. Obama doesn’t disagree—although he wants faster and more robust background checks for gun buyers. In the wake of the theater shooting in Colorado and the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, both candidates offered sympathy for the victims’ families but did not expound on gun-control policies.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.