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The Politics of Gay Marriage: Biden Remarks Rekindle Culture War

May 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
When Vice President Joe Biden said he now believes same-sex marriages should be protected under law, it touched off a new round of political culture wars. Gwen Ifill hosts a debate between Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and gay rights advocate Richard Socarides.
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GWEN IFILL: The political culture wars staged a comeback this weekend, this time over whether gay and lesbian couples should be permitted to marry.

Vice President Joe Biden touched off a political firestorm Sunday when he said he now believes same-sex marriages should be protected under law.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.

And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.

GWEN IFILL: The statement was a marked shift from what candidate Biden said during the 2008 vice presidential debate.

Let’s try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

JOSEPH BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a — from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that.

GWEN IFILL: Biden’s remarks yesterday also went a step farther than President Obama has been willing to go.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I have said, my feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

GWEN IFILL: The vice president’s office said later yesterday that he didn’t overstep. But fuel was added to the fire today when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was questioned about the topic on MSNBC.

QUESTION: Do you believe that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: Yes, I do.

GWEN IFILL: And Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan in a magazine last November had already expressed support for gay marriage.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was pressed repeatedly on the issue today.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The president’s position is well-known. He’s spoken to this. It’s gotten a great deal of coverage. I don’t have an update to provide you on the president’s position. It is what it was.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has said he would back a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He repeated that today in an interview.

MITT ROMNEY (R): My view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. That’s the position I have had for some time. And I don’t intend to make any adjustments at this point.

GWEN IFILL: same-Sex marriage is now allowed in six states and the District of Columbia. And the issue is also up for debate in Minnesota, Washington state, Maryland, Maine and tomorrow in North Carolina.

For more on the state of the same-sex marriage debate, we are joined by Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions, And Richard Socarides, an attorney and gay rights advocate who once served in the Clinton White House.

Richard Socarides, how has this debate changed or evolved, to use the president’s term, from where to where?

RICHARD SOCARIDES, Equality Matters: Well, we have seen a remarkable shift in public opinion and understanding on this issue, a really remarkable shift in the polls over a very short period of time, and what we see from Vice President Biden and from other members of the Cabinet just recently a willingness to articulate that all Americans ought to be treated the same, everybody ought to be treated equally.

It ought to be about who you love and whether or not you’re willing to make a commitment, whether or not you’re willing to take on the same responsibilities for your partner. And everybody ought to be treated the same in this country. It’s fundamental to our understanding of the way our Constitution works.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Brown, do you see this evolving in the direction that Richard Socarides — or maybe in the opposite direction?

BRIAN BROWN, National Organization for Marriage: I don’t think so at all.

I mean, if you look at the facts, every state that’s been able to vote on this issue, 30 of 30 states, and states that aren’t red states by any stretch of the imagination — you have California and you have Maine. In every single state, the people of this country have said they know there is something unique and special about men and women coming together in marriage.

And I expect that you’re going to again see that tomorrow, when North Carolina votes. We have heard a lot of the talk that Richard just said that somehow the people have changed on this issue. The New York Times recently went so far as to say they think there’s going to be a big upset in North Carolina, with the people rejecting an amendment to protect marriage.

The polls show that that simply is not the case. I’m expecting a big win tomorrow. And I wonder how folks are going to attempt to spin that who somehow think that 30 of 30 doesn’t equal a pretty — a very, very strong consensus on the American people that marriage is by definition the union of one man and one woman.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Socarides about the politics of this a little bit, because you mentioned North Carolina, which of course is one of the states which is in contention in the fall.

Why is it that it seems kill everybody in the administration or so many people in the administration, absent the president, seems to be willing to speak out on this? What do you think?

RICHARD SOCARIDES: Well, because I think it’s what we stand for as Democrats. I think it’s what we stand for as progressive Americans.

You know, the president is a progressive president, and someone whose views on civil rights issues have always led the country, always — always been in a leadership position. So I think that this is where the trend is. The president has himself said that. And I think. . .

GWEN IFILL: Well, if that’s — let me interrupt you. If that’s where the trend is, why doesn’t the president just say that he’s completed his evolution?

RICHARD SOCARIDES: Well, I think, unfortunately, some of his advisers have made a political calculation that this position where he’s involving, whether he neither supports it nor is against it, is somehow politically advantageous between now and the election.

But I think there’s no question, based upon all the things that the president has done to advance the cause of gay and lesbian civil rights, that, you know, he believes in equality. And you can’t have — you know, you have to have full quality. And full equality means equal rights.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Brown, we just heard Richard Socarides — he was talking a little bit on criticizing the administration about not making this full evolution, or at least the president.

But I’m curious whether — on the Republican side, Mitt Romney last week or his campaign at least was forced to accept the resignation of an openly gay foreign policy adviser who felt pressured from people on the right in the way maybe the president feels pressure from people on the left about his orientation, about his being gay.

Do you think that maybe Republicans are feeling the same kind of pressures coming from the opposite direction in the political sense?

BRIAN BROWN: Well, I think that the Republican Party, it is very clear. If you look at polling of Republican voters, an overwhelming majority believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

But I think — I do agree with Richard on one thing. It’s definitely a political calculation on the part of President Obama to not support same-sex marriage right now. If you look at the administration, what it does, rather than what it says, refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, opposing the marriage protection amendment in North Carolina, opposing Proposition 8, time after time, the administration has refused to do anything to protect marriage, while, at the same time, President Obama continues to say that he believes marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

And, clearly, that’s because of the political reality that strong numbers of Democrats oppose redefining marriage. In North Carolina, the number is somewhere around 48 percent that are going to vote for the marriage protection amendment.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask. . .

BRIAN BROWN: So it’s very bad politically for the administration or for the Democratic Party to endorse redefining marriage.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Socarides, do you think that this ought to be a litmus test issue, say, on the party platform this summer?

We have heard some people, some prominent Democrats like the mayor of Los Angeles say it should be.

RICHARD SOCARIDES: Well, I don’t think it should be a litmus test. I do think that it should be in the party platform because I think the Democratic Party should stand for full equality.

But I think that, when you compare the two parties and when you compare President Obama with Mr. Romney, there is no doubt where gay and lesbian Americans will be voting and where people who care about equal rights for all of our citizens will be voting.

I mean, the — you know, Mr. Romney would take us very, very far back, as we saw with Mr. Grenell. I mean, this was a gentleman who was hired and then frozen out simply because some conservatives objected to his sexual orientation. That’s not what we stand for in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brown, is this becoming a state fight or a federal fight? So many hot-button issues have moved from federal fights and constitutional amendments to fights in individual legislatures.

BRIAN BROWN: Well, I think it continues to be a state fight. The question is really whether, with all these state fights, what the U.S. Supreme Court is going to do. I mean, it’s important to remember that we have the Perry case working its way up the United States Supreme Court, which could be the Roe vs. Wade on marriage.

And the fact is the people of this country time after time have opposed redefining marriage. It’s important to continue — for the people to continue to protect marriage on the state level, to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t do — make some sort of radical decision imposing same-sex marriage on an electorate that doesn’t want it.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you two a final question, which is whether, when you look at this issue as it comes back periodically, do you believe — Mr. Socarides, starting with you, do you believe that this helps or hurts, at a time when people are thinking about the economy, thinking about their pocketbooks, that it helps or hurts in your case a Democratic candidate to get drawn into this debate?

RICHARD SOCARIDES: Well, I think this is a national discussion we are having. And it’s an important national discussion.

And people need to be sharing their views, and our political leaders need to lead on this issue. I think that this issue helps Democrats, because I think that Democrats want to stand for equality and basic protections. I think it will help the president when he takes a clear stand, like Vice President Biden did.

GWEN IFILL: Prior to the election?

RICHARD SOCARIDES: I hope he does it prior to the election. But we’re going to support him even if he doesn’t and then hope that we get him to do it after the election.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brown, what you do you think? Does it help or hurt to have these discussions at this point?

BRIAN BROWN: Well, I think it helps from my point of view to have the discussion right now. I think that it’s a basic truth. It’s that people of this country don’t oppose redefining marriage because they don’t believe in equality. They oppose it because it’s wrong.

They understand there’s something unique and special about men and women coming together in marriage. And that’s in the best interest of society. So, I don’t think they’re doing that from some sort of bad perspective. They’re doing it because they think it’s in the best interest of the state.

And I think the fact of the matter is exposing the reality that the present administration has with its actions undermined marriage, it’s important for people to see that, while, at the same time, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’s very bad for the Democratic Party to put same-sex marriage in its platform, simply because there are many, many Democrats who stand with us, that our organization has endorsed, that believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. And this shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Brown of the National Organization for. . .

RICHARD SOCARIDES: I should point out that there are many Republicans too who believe in basic fairness for all Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me. Didn’t mean to step on you.

Brian Brown of National Organization for Marriage and Richard Socarides, former Clinton administration official, thank you both very much.

BRIAN BROWN: Thank you for having us.