Barack Obama made history this week as the first sitting president to support gay marriage and the Republican response to the unprecedented announcement has been relatively quiet. Brooke speaks to NewYorker.com writer Alex Koppelman, who says republicans are playing a game of wait-and-see before deciding how to react.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Last week a seasoned political watcher told us that after Mitt Romney’s de facto anointment as the Republican presidential nominee, the political press would be filling its headlines with the inconsequential, until the conventions. He said desperate reporters would hyperventilate over trivial matters. And then, Vice President Joe Biden told Meet the Press that he had no problem with same-sex marriage, which pushed the President to move up his own evolution on the issue. To wit:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Get ready. The 2012 Presidential Race just changed, maybe dramatically. And now –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Give him credit for taking the risk. Many politicians duck from risk.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This is a potentially watershed moment, as President Obama comes out formally, publicly, enthusiastically in support of gay marriage.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …saying that marriage was between a man and a woman. Now he is saying just the opposite. So this is a reversal, Chet.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And it’s gonna change this campaign, perhaps for the better, for the worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Fox Nation web site, affiliated with the Fox News Channel, declared in a banner headline, “Obama Flip-Flops, Declares War on Marriage.” About an hour later, it retreated a little, asserting only that, quote, “Obama Flip-Flops on Gay Marriage.” Now, that was a little puzzling. The rhetoric toned down? Alex Koppelman, associate news editor of The New Yorker’s web site, had an explanation.
ALEX KOPPELMAN: It’s important, first of all, to understand Fox Nation’s headline writing. If Obama brought Betty Ford to the White House, the headline would be “Obama Brings Druggie to White House.
It’s so over-the-top, and essentially red meat. So when they change that, it says something about what they think the reaction to Obama’s announcement will be. It says they think that it’s not going to just be red meat, that it is going to be more nuanced, and so they had to deal with it. And they tamped it down because the Republican reaction was pretty muted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that the Republicans had basically two options for reacting. What were they?
ALEX KOPPELMAN: One is you fight Obama on the merits. You say, this is wrong, marriage is between a man and a woman. The President is an extremist. That’s what you do if you think you win the argument on the issue.
Their other options to come at this from a tactical perspective. So you call him the flip-flopper. You say he’s doing this as a distraction. You say that we should be talking about jobs. That’s the sort of thing that’s going on right now.
For example, what John Boehner did when he went on Fox Business to respond. He did say, “Well, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman” but what he immediately then said is, “But this is a distraction. The American people want us to focus on jobs and they want us to focus on the economy, and we should get off of this topic.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you’ve got North Carolina voting to seal the door against gay marriage by changing its constitution, why do they want to use the distraction argument, the tactics argument, rather than spend all their time on “Marriage is just between a man and woman?”
ALEX KOPPELMAN: The North Carolina vote is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but let’s remember, that is a very small percentage of the electorate, compared to how many people are going to come out and vote in November.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That may be but why bother to take evasive measures if you aren’t gonna lose voters by making a direct attack on the issue?
ALEX KOPPELMAN: It really looks like they’re playing more of a wait and see game. It could be that polling numbers come out and the President’s getting killed, and if so, I would expect to see their strategy change. But the Republicans have sort of already used all their weapons on same-sex marriage. Because his position has evolved only to a certain point, he says he personally favors same-sex marriage but he also says he wants it left to the states. It’s not like he’s pushing out an - a federal amendment. You don’t really have something to organize around as much.
On the other hand, what you do have is a base for Obama that’s not as energized about him as it could be. And issues like this, where you have this big public statement, this history-making thing, it reminds people of what they felt about Obama in 2008. The worry is if you then fight him on it, that just makes his base all the more fired up about him. You increase the turnout for him. You increase the fundraising for him. And by doing that, it backfires on you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, journalist Mark Halperin said something kind of interesting on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, after Obama’s announcement.
[MORNING JOE CLIP]:
MARK HALPERIN: I think that the media is as divided on this issue as the Obama family, which is to say not at all.
WILLIE GEIST: Right.
MARK HALPERIN: And so, then he’s never gonna get negative coverage for this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you look back to the coverage of slavery, you found different news organizations slowly, over time, changing their position from one of evenhandedness to one of advocacy because the moral issue seemed so plain. Do you see that in this case? The country is still divided but we see the way the polls are moving. We see a, a sharp generational shift.
ALEX KOPPELMAN: I think the shift actually makes it less pressing for some reporters because you're not the only one out there on the barricades saying, we have to do something about this. You’re the one looking out and saying, this is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time. And so, it feels, I think, a little less pressing.
We’ve got people paying attention to bullying in schools, we’ve got people paying attention to hate crimes. We’ve got the President of the United States on national TV saying, I support same-sex marriage. And so, I think the urgency of the issue, for some reporters, has died down. I think it is sort of the natural human reaction, especially for reporters who we all imagine ourselves as crusading journalists, but it’s not exciting [LAUGHS] to fight a fight that you feel is already going to be won.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alex, thank you very much.
ALEX KOPPELMAN: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alex Koppelman is associate news editor of The New Yorker’s web site.
I learned of Mark Halperin’s Morning Joe remarks from the conservative media watchdog site, NewsBusters, which cited it as evidence of liberal bias in the media. NewsBusters also posted the edited remarks of Shep Smith of Fox News, to drive the point home
SHEP SMITH: The President of the United States, now in the 21st century, and what I’m most curious about is whether it’s your belief that in this time of rising debts and all the rest if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue, while sitting very firmly with – without much question, on the wrong side of history on it. Shade – shades of segregation and states’ rights and the whole thing playing itself out all over again, isn’t it?