President Barack Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage was viewed for so long as such a risky move that operatives in both parties expected it to drop like a bomb, handing Republicans a powerful wedge issue in an election year.
Instead, it’s landed like a feather.
Top Republican officeholders went out of their way Thursday to try to shift the conversation back to the economy. The GOP’s House and Senate campaign committees practically ignored it. And prominent Republican strategists are warning the party to steer clear of it.
One notable exception is Ed Gillespie, a top adviser to the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Gillespie predicted on MSNBC that Obama’s support of same-sex marriage would become a significant campaign issue. And, signaling divisions within the party, cultural conservatives said Romney would be foolish not to capitalize on Obama’s announcement. But Romney himself made no mention of it Thursday during a fundraiser and public event.
The muted Republican response calls into question long-standing assumptions that the president’s endorsement would prove perilous, used by the GOP as a turnout and organizing tool in the same way that former President George W. Bush’s campaign relied on anti-gay marriage initiatives in swing states in 2004 to motivate his supporters.
There’s still plenty of time for the GOP to modify its strategy, but the relative silence from national Republicans so far suggests 2012 may look nothing like 2004.
The early calculation by Republicans is that it’s not worth diverting attention from the economy, which remains Obama’s biggest weakness, and that an intense focus on gay marriage may actually further alienate women and younger voters who were turned off by the GOP’s focus earlier this year on limiting access to birth control.
“This election is all about jobs, the economy, spending and the debt,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advised former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign. “The president’s decision is not going to change that fundamental foundation. It might make a difference at the margins, especially in culturally conservative states and among cultural conservatives. But it just is not where voters are.”
“I recommend that Republicans focus like a laser on the economy,” Ayres added.
Democrats were the ones playing offense. The Obama campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee used the issue to appeal for donations. The White House highlighted the president’s ABC News interview in an email to supporters. And gay-rights advocates in Massachusetts went on the attack against Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who is locked in a tight race with Elizabeth Warren.
But White House press secretary Jay Carney made clear Thursday that, like Republicans, Obama doesn’t intend to keep talking about gay marriage.
“The president’s focus, as I think he also said yesterday in his interview, has been and will continue to be on jobs and the economy,” Carney said. “Creating greater security for a middle class in this country that has been under stress for a long time, even predating the Great Recession, has been [the] No. 1 priority. It was his No. 1 priority when he ran for office, for this office, and it has been his priority since he took the oath of office. And I think you will hear him focus on those issues just as he has — going forward, just as he has in the past.”
The Republicans caution was apparent on multiple fronts Thursday.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to get drawn into the debate, telling reporters that he believes marriage should be between “one man and one woman” and then quickly returned to the economy.
“The president can talk about it all he wants. I’m going to stay focused on what the American people want us to stay focused on, and that’s jobs,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), often at the leading edge of the party’s messaging strategy, made no mention of the issue during his floor remarks Thursday, choosing instead to talk about the economy.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee are usually both quick to blast out press releases demanding that vulnerable Democrats state whether they agree with the president on hot-button issues. On Thursday, they kept an unusually low profile.