By Mike Dorf
Over the weekend Joe Biden went on Meet the Press and said (more or less) that he supports marriage equality, thus seemingly highlighting a difference of opinion between himself and President Obama, who supports civil unions and whose views on same-sex marriage are still "evolving." Truth be told, it's not entirely clear from the clip whether Biden was saying that he supports marriage equality as that term has come to be used or what is sometimes called marriage-in-all-but-name for same-sex couples, which is the Obama position. Here, watch for yourself.
But it doesn't really matter what Biden actually said. The news story that came out of the interview was that Biden has come out for same-sex marriage, whereas the President isn't quite there yet. Taking that story at face value, it is at the very least bad messaging from the White House.
Why? Couldn't one make exactly the opposite case? After all, in August 2004, Dick Cheney said nearly exactly the same thing, thus taking a pro-same-sex marriage position despite President Bush's position (at the time) in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. If a Republican VP could take that position during a re-election campaign eight years ago, surely a Democratic VP can take the same position now, no?
Maybe, but maybe not. Because Cheney has a lesbian daughter, it was relatively easy for voters who were trying to suss out the Bush administration's "real" position to discount his views as likely not reflective of his boss's views. By contrast, Biden has no equivalent personal stake and so voters might think that his unguarded statement is in some sense the "real" position of the Obama administration.
Of course, one must discount that contrast by what we might call the "Biden factor." This is Joe Biden, after all, the same guy who in 2008 answered a question about gun control by threatening to shoot his running mate. It's just not plausible to attribute everything that comes out of Joe Biden's mouth as connected to official policy in any coherent way.
Still, there's another important difference between Cheney and Biden. When Cheney took a more liberal position on marriage than Bush, he was outflanking his boss to the center. When Biden did so, he was outflanking his boss away from the center. That matters because Cheney's statement would have been read as reassuring swing voters who thought Bush's views too extreme, whereas Biden's statement has the opposite effect. Meanwhile, in highlighting the differences between himself and Bush, Cheney reassured the party base (here, marriage "traditionalists") that the guy at the top of the ticket was committed to their cause. By contrast, Biden's remark--and the subsequent effort by David Axelrod to distance President Obama from it--simply underscored for an already somewhat disaffected base that the President has been something of a laggard on this issue.
None of this should make a difference to voters who are well informed on this issue. People who care deeply about the marriage equality issue--whether for or against--have to know that Obama in a second term will do more for marriage equality than Romney in a first term (or ever). Truth be told, both men are probably comfortable with marriage equality, but the positions of the bases of their respective parties will mean that a Democrat will almost certainly get there first. (One can imagine a Nixon-to-China scenario in which a Republican President has the latitude to support same-sex marriage when a Democratic President wouldn't, but I don't think that's at all realistic over the next four years.)
So why does it matter what Biden said on the issue? To my mind, the damage to the Obama campaign from Biden's inadvertent honesty will occur at a higher level of generality. If the economy remains in its slow-to-modest-growth mode for the next six months, the election will come down to a choice between personalities. The fundamental personal case against Mitt Romney is that he is a hyper-ambitious chameleon with no core. The Romney campaign and its SuperPAC allies can only do so much to combat that image by denying it, because it is so clearly true. But what they can do is to neutralize the issue by trying to make the same charge stick against Obama. And anything that highlights Obama's clearly political calculation on the same-sex marriage issue makes that job easier.