In 2006, Michele Bachmann campaigned to amend the Minnesota constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Five years later, she says questions related to gays and lesbians should not be major issues in the presidential election.
Question 1: Is it progress, or is it just politics? Question 2: Does it really matter?
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day after Bachmann won Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll, the Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential hopeful avoided questions about gays and society. “I am running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone's judge,” she said, adding later, “[…] these kind of questions really aren't about what people are concerned about right now.”
Interviewer David Gregory reminded Bachmann that she has called same-sex marriage a defining political issue of our time. He played a video segment from a 2004 National Education Conference in which she said homosexuality was a form of “personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement.” Bachmann stuck to her current talking points – that her beliefs about gays and lesbians are not relevant to her presidential campaign and that she is not passing judgment on anyone.
Bachmann is not the only candidate in the Republican field whose message on gay and lesbian issues has recently undergone a makeover. Like Bachmann, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent the early part of the last decade spearheading efforts for a state constitutional amendment opposing same-sex marriage. When his state’s highest court ruled in 2004 that all residents were entitled to the same rights to marriage, Romney did everything he could to prevent that right from being extended to nonresident same-sex couples, who were not permitted to marry in the Bay State until 2008, after Romney left office.
Since then, however, Romney has tried to portray himself as a backer of some gay rights, particularly those related to employment and other financial matters, even as he continues to oppose gay marriage. His evasive maneuvers have drawn criticism from both the far right and the far left, while helping him establish his niche as the go-to moderate Republican.
On the surface, both candidates’ shifts seem to signal that their statements have been more the products of strategy than of personal beliefs all along. Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times that Bachmann’s “recipe” is to “find the issue, then use it politically to mobilize previously marginalized or disconnected groups.” As a state senator, that meant targeting disenfranchised social conservatives. Now, through the Tea Party, Bachmann has found another group of supporters who are more energized by fiscal issues than social ones. While some of these fiscal conservatives are also social conservatives, not all are.
With Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry into the race, Bachmann likely lost a large share of her evangelical supporters, leaving her to challenge Romney on economic issues. To do that, she needs to keep her base of fiscally conservative supporters intact, even if that means dropping some of the social issues she relied on earlier in her career.
Since Bachmann and Romney are politicians, it is not unreasonable for us to assume that their stances change to suit their current political needs. That may be true, but it also is possible that Bachmann’s comments on “Meet the Press” and Romney’s softer tone on gay rights are not only about strategy. They may, in fact, be changing their minds.
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo powerfully stated in his speech following passage of his state’s marriage equality bill, most of today’s politicians came of age in a different political climate, one in which there was not yet space on the political spectrum to be “for” marriage equality. For them, coming to accept gay and lesbian rights has been a personal and a political process. The progress of that process was clearly evident in the dramatic announcements made by several New York senators who changed their positions in the final days before the vote.
In recent years, we have seen that allowing same-sex couples to wed does not in any way interfere with opposite-sex couples’ ability to do so. We have seen that allowing gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the military makes our troops stronger, not weaker. We have seen from friends and neighbors that same-sex couples can be loving spouses and parents. Television programs, including ABC’s popular “Modern Family,” have reinforced this lesson. As a result, public opinion on gay and lesbian issues is changing, and public officials’ opinions are changing as well.
Some politicians, including those New York state senators who changed their votes on the marriage equality bill, have admitted publicly that they were wrong. Doing so takes courage, however, that not all politicians can be expected to muster.
A generation ago, many politicians – and others – fervently believed that interracial marriage was prohibited by God. Hardly any of them explicitly admitted that they had been wrong, but few continued to insist on their beliefs after those views came to be seen as mistaken and unacceptable. Instead, they did what Bachmann and Romney are doing now: They changed the subject. Many of today’s public figures are unlikely to ever fully endorse marriage equality. But as the morality of homosexuality stops being a debatable issue in society, it will stop being an issue in politics.
We have not reached that point yet. Bachmann and Romney may have moved away from some of their more extreme views, but both candidates, along with former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who has dropped out of the race) and former Sen. Rick Santorum, recently signed a pledge promising to support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage in a way that excludes same-sex couples. The pledge is a shameful exercise in pointless gay-bashing, since such an amendment has zero chance of passage, but Republican primary entrants still feel a need to appease the anti-gay element in the party’s base. That’s an unfortunate blemish on the GOP, but one that will naturally heal as society itself becomes more accustomed to gay families living the same kinds of lives as everyone else.
We cannot tell for certain whether Bachmann’s shift is a change of tone or a change of heart, but it is undoubtedly a change for the better. Her position brings us a little closer to a time when equal rights for same-sex couples are not a matter for debate.