Barack Obama, Do You Take This Issue?

Gay marriage advocates ask Obama to speak now; political pragmatists say hold your peace

Jon Cooper first met Barack Obama in 2007, a few weeks before Obama announced a run for president and back when he was mostly known as a promising first-term U.S. senator with a gift for oration. At a low-dollar fundraiser in Midtown Manhattan, Cooper, the president of a large electronics manufacturing company and then the majority leader of the Suffolk County Legislature, stood next to Obama after he had taken questions from guests. Cooper pulled out a Christmas card that he had mailed to friends and family and showed it to the Illinois senator.

The card showed Cooper and Robert Cooper, his domestic partner of 27 years, and the couple’s five adopted children. (Robert Cooper changed his last name when the couple adopted their first child 25 years ago.)

“He told me how beautiful my family looked, and I said to him, ‘I hope that if you decide to run for president that you will remain a strong and consistent advocate for gay rights and for gay marriage,’” Cooper recalled.

The president, he said, looked him in the eye, put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Jon, we will get there together.”

“It sent a chill down my spine,” Cooper said. “This guy gets equal rights for gays. Of course he is a supporter of same-sex marriage.”

Cooper became the first elected official in New York to endorse Obama’s White House bid, served as the Long Island campaign chair in 2008, and was named an “Obama Victory Trustee” this year, tasked with raising at least $100,000 for the president’s re-election effort.

He married his partner in 2009, in Connecticut, a few months after same-sex marriage was legalized there. But now he wishes that his fellow advocates for marriage equality would just lay off the matter for a little while.

“I’ve probably met the president 15 times,” Cooper said. “And I happen to believe that personally Barack does support same-sex marriage. But whether he should come out—excuse the expression—and express public support for it is another matter.”

Cooper’s stance puts him at odds with major gay-rights groups, especially the Freedom to Marry Coalition, which, in addition to gearing up for five state referenda across the country on the issue this November, embarked earlier this year on a quixotic quest: to get the Democratic Party to include support for full marriage rights into the party platform that will be introduced and voted upon at September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone read—let alone fought over—the contents of a party platform. Instead, party platforms have become much like the conventions themselves—slicked up media narratives designed to be as bland as possible for an increasingly diminishing audience of party regulars.

Occasionally, scuffles will break out, but it has been awhile. In 1992, a minor uproar took place on the Republican side of the aisle when a group of pro-choice delegates tried to tone down some of the platform’s harsh language on abortion rights, but they were quickly dismissed by the officials from the George H.W. Bush White House. On the Democratic side, you have to go all the way to the 1980 convention—when Ted Kennedy pushed for a health-care-for-all plank—to find the last major platform fight, according to Alice Germond, the long-time secretary to the Democratic National Committee.

“It is a statement of who we are, what our beliefs are and how we will address national problems,” Germond said. “But to be honest with you, I don’t think there are that many Americans who will be waking up at 4:30 in the morning to find out what our party platform is.”

For Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, the platform push is an effort to codify what the Democratic Party implicitly believes about same-sex marriage.

“This is where the majority of Democrats are, and it’s where the majority of independents are, and it speaks to the values that the party historically embraces,” he said. “Because we believe it is the right thing to do, and happily, the right thing to do politically, we stepped forward to put the party firmly on record with where the majority of the party already is.”

For Wolfson, Obama is already a de facto supporter of same-sex marriage—he noted that the president has already ordered the federal government not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, has called on Congress and the courts to overturn the law, and has opposed state efforts to enshrine antigay marriage laws in their constitutions. Last year, he notes, Obama told supporters at an LGBT fundraiser that “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country.” And then throw in the fact that at a pair of fundraisers in New York last month, First Lady Michelle Obama told supporters that a Supreme Court heavy with Obama-appointed justices would permit their children to “love whomever they choose.”

“Has the president connected the dots between what he has said and what follows from it?” Wolfson said. “That is what we are calling for. But if he has affirmed the bedrock principle that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple—well, ‘every other legal right’ is the right to marry.”

At first, members of President Obama’s campaign scoffed at the effort, although part of their dismissal sounded like they simply resented being pressured on the issue. Now, however, there are signs they are starting to take it seriously. Last month, The Washington Post reported that the White House’s political team has had discussions with leading Democrats about the pros and cons of coming out fully in support of gay marriage. And in the weeks since the effort was launched, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as both New York senators and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, all have signed on. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is serving as the chairman of the convention this year, has also come out in favor of it.

Both sides of the debate are able to cite polls saying that their side is correct.

Urging caution, Cooper said, “Fifty-four percent of African-Americans are not comfortable with same-sex marriage. Thirty-two percent of Latinos [are not]. These are sizeable minorities of two key constituency groups. The reason I would urge it not to be incorporated into the party platform is that already Republicans are going to be involved in a very intensive effort to suppress voter turnout among key constituencies. We don’t need anything out there that might inadvertently support those efforts.”

While it’s unlikely these voting blocks will fall to Mitt Romney, they could keep voters home in swing states such as Ohio and Florida.

Wolfson, however, cites the fact that a majority of Democrats are already in favor of marriage equality, young people overwhelmingly support it, and he said even independents and Catholics support it.

“This is no longer the third rail that operatives used to think of it as. We are no longer in 1996. We are no longer in 2004. We are no longer even in 2008,” he said. “This is where the center of American politics is today, and the Democratic Party, which has done so much to get it there, should be able to stand with it own values to make the case to bring the country forward.”

What remains unknowable is where the president’s head and heart are. Asked last month about Villaraigosa’s endorsement of the platform plank, Jim Messina, a top political adviser to the president, declined to speculate on what the party platform would ultimately say.

“Look, we’re in the big-tent party here,” he said, and proceeded to detail Obama’s “great record on fighting for fundamental fairness for all Americans: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and many other accomplishments we are very, very proud of.”

Still, it is hard to find anyone close to Obama who honestly takes the president at his word that he is “evolving” on the question of gay marriage—as if somehow the son of two parents whose own union was illegal in many states when he was born and who grew up to be a constitutional law scholar is merely a witness to his own mental transformation on the issue.

“I have no doubt that if the president gets re-elected, that he will come out in support of gay marriage,” said one supporter who has discussed the issue with the president and who asked to remain anonymous to avoid revealing the content of private conversations.

It is this hesitancy, driven by a presumption that an ever-narrower slice of swing voters disapproves of marriage equality, that is the single biggest animator of Wolfson’s effort.

“In politics there are people who make their living by being risk-adverse,” he said. “There are others who make their living by trying to slice things into narrow little chunks, and there are others who put forward a vision and trust that the American people will respect leadership and authenticity and values—and often those are the ones who change our politics and strengthen our country.”

In the press call, Messina attempted to deflect the decision away from the president, saying, “You know, there’s a process. There’s not even a delegate platform committee yet. There’s a process to go through this discussion and the DNC will go through that, and we will have a platform.”

In truth, there are complicated parliamentary rules that detail who gets on the platform drafting committee, how the planks get voted upon and what the final document looks like, but there is little doubt that the party platform will represent the priorities of the president.

“There is a platform committee, but they rubber-stamp it,” said Ed Kilgore, a Democratic strategist and someone closely involved with several Democratic conventions in the past. “It is going to be totally up to the Obama people. No way somebody will get up on the floor and propose a plank [without his approval]. The real question is whether the president is ready to back marriage equality. He is ‘evolving,’ but most of the Democratic Party is already there.”

Kilgore, however, said that he could imagine a scenario where other gay groups try to curb some of Freedom to Marry’s efforts, citing the fact that they have been on a roll in states across the county and may be hesitant to push their luck over platform language that is largely meaningless.

But if he is wrong, and Wolfson and his supporters push a marriage plank only to have it fail, there is no telling what will happen at the Democratic convention, although there could be enough drama to make the “brokered convention” fantasies over on the Republican side of the aisle seem tame by comparison. Democrats sound determined to avoid this fate.

“We will not let Republicans enjoy a party,” Germond said. “We are united by our candidate. I do not expect there to be a floor flight.”

But Wolfson refused to rule out the possibility of a walkout.

“It is way premature to have any conversation about that. The process hasn’t even begun yet. We have begun the conversation. We believe we are talking with friends and people who are mostly in support of the freedom to marry, and we have every reason to believe this will be in the platform.”

So, nothing dramatic or symbolic if you don’t get your way?

“The convention is in September,” he replied evenly. \