The Big Straddle: Why Compromise Can Be Hazardous to One’s Political Health

BY Gwen Ifill  May 11, 2012 at 3:43 PM EDT

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”

Jim Hightower, a committed liberal and former Texas agriculture commissioner, liked to say this so much that he finally used it as a title for a book.

I was reminded of this tart assessment this week as I watched two skilled politicians attempt to negotiate a growing chasm opening under their feet. One of them, Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, slipped and fell. The other, President Obama, appeared to leap nimbly to the other side of the sinkhole just before it swallowed him up.

Right up until the morning of the day when President Obama stopped evolving and declared his support for same-sex marriage, there was still a vigorous debate under way over whether the political downside was worth the risk.

The night before, North Carolina voters became the 30th state to declare such unions illegal. Time and again, the people who tell pollsters they increasingly support gay marriage have been outnumbered at the ballot box.

Plus, the president’s base was split. Gay Democrats wanted his support, while many older, religious African Americans did not want him to publicly affirm support for gay marriage. There was an argument to be made for leaving the whole thing up to the states and sidestepping the choice entirely until after the fall election.

This appeared to be the settled course until Vice President Joe Biden cleared his throat.

“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights — all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” he declared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”

By framing his support in the context of marriage rather than civil unions, the vice president “got out a little bit over his skis,” as the president later described it. But since it’s really hard to ski backward, the spotlight turned back to the White House.

Within hours of Biden’s comments, both gay marriage supporters and opponents began to characterize the president’s continued evolutionary reticence as hypocritical. Both sides believed the president was cloaking his true views for political reasons.

So when the president did weigh in — inviting ABC’s Robin Roberts to come to town for a chat — he decided to endorse gay marriage with the caveat that it remains a states’ rights issue.

He attributed his decision to friends, staff, neighbors, soldiers, firefighters and even to his daughters — who, judging by his frequent references to them these days, are the most influential offspring since Amy Carter.

“The winds of change are happening,” the president said. “They’re not blowing with the same force in every state. But I think that what you’re going to see is states coming to the realization that if a soldier can fight for us, if a police officer can protect our neighborhoods, if a firefighter is expected to go into a burning building to save our possessions or our kids, the notion that after they were done with that, that we’d say to them, ‘Oh, but by the way, we’re going to treat you differently.’ … As more and more folks think about it, they’re going to say, you know, ‘That’s not who we are.’”

However, Lugar was not so fortunate at maneuvering his way out of a sticky political situation. Nearly four decades in Washington caught up with him.

Greg Fettig, the Tea Party activist who co-founded Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, worked around the clock to defeat Lugar and settled on eventual winner Richard Mourdock as his weapon of political destruction.

Fettig told me on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour that “what you saw last night was really a purity purging” of “establishment moderates.”

Lugar was clearly unequipped for such a fight, and he was bitter after his thumping 20-point defeat. He even skipped the traditional unity news conference held the next day.

“Partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race … have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise,” he said in a stinging election-night memo. “If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.”

Lugar may be right, but his point of view is increasingly being ushered to the sidelines as other moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, leave the Senate.

Obama may have proved Hightower wrong this week — negotiating the double yellow line with finesse. But Lugar was the dead armadillo.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.