Daily Kos is going to be polling once a month on marriage equality, and the first installment doesn't show anything particularly surprising -- a third of the public supports same-sex marriage, a third supports civil unions, and a third doesn't support any legal recognition for gay couples. But this raises a question: Where are the 2012 Republican presidential contenders going to be on this issue?
After all, the arc of public opinion is unmistakable, and almost every major politician has moved to the left in recent years, in one way or another. For a while, it's been Democrats (including Barack Obama) who have felt awkward answering this question, torn between the principle of equality and their political fear of being punished. But since they'll be forced to articulate their positions on all kinds of things, folks like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee could be facing a dilemma.
Let's take these numbers (which seem roughly in line with other polls). If you're going to say, "No legal recognition," you'll be siding with a bare majority of Republicans -- 52 percent, compared to the 46 percent favoring either marriage (11 percent) or civil unions (35 percent). So you're OK there...until you get to the general, and face the fact that 71 percent of independent voters favor either marriage equality or civil unions.
So what will they do? My guess is that they'll fall back on states' rights, all saying something like, "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, but if a state wants to enact civil unions, that's their decision." Sounds like it might thread the needle, unless the follow-up gets asked: "So, governor, if there was a bill to enact civil unions in your state, would you support it?" That's much harder to answer, because then they have to take an affirmative position in favor of rights for gay people, angering the social conservative/Tea Party base (and yes, the Tea Party base is socially conservative), or adopt a position that in 2011 makes them look like a hard-line culture warrior.
It isn't that this issue is going to be critically important in 2012 -- the economy is going to swamp everything else -- but if the eventual nominee isn't able to navigate it, it could contribute to the impression that he/she is a reactionary extremist more interested in wagging his/her finger at people than in solving the country's problems.
-- Paul Waldman