Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both suggested they're open to supporting gay marriage. Are they telegraphing a policy change -- or just going rogue?
Updated, 11:45 a.m.
The Obama team's first messaging crisis of the week wasn't caused by Mitt Romney, Chen Guangcheng, or elections in Europe. Instead, it's the result of two top administration officials voicing unprecedented support for gay rights -- first Vice President Joe Biden, with somewhat ambiguous remarks on Sunday's edition of Meet the Press, and then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's unequivocal endorsement of same-sex marriage on Morning Joe Monday (above).
Here's what Biden had to say (video is below):
DAVID GREGORY: And you're comfortable with same-sex marriage now?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: I-- I-- look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. 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. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction-- beyond that.
DAVID GREGORY: In a second term, will this administration come out behind same-sex marriage, the institution of marriage?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, I-- I-- I can't speak to that. I-- I-- I-- I don't know the answer to that.
The White House quickly sprung into action with a rather Talmudic interpretation of the quote, insisting he was only arguing that gay couples ought to have the same legal rights as straight ones, not necessarily endorsing marriage. That's tenable -- and gay-marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan, to his own chagrin, agreed with that reading -- but it opened up obvious questions about whether Biden was in step with Obama.
Making things even harder for the Obama spin team is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's appearance on Morning Joe today. It's striking how unequivocal and simple Duncan's response was: "Yes, I do." (The clip also offers a fascinating insight to the world of cable news: witness Mika Brzezinski's seeming annoyance at the question, and the team's self-satisfaction at "making news" after Duncan answered -- but that's another story for another day).
Obama has long sat on the fence on gay marriage. In 1996, as a candidate for the Illinois state senate, he said he supported same-sex marriage rights, but he later backtracked and said he does not support such unions. On the other hand, he also has said repeatedly that his position is "evolving" on the matter. All this creates a strange situation where, essentially, no one believes Obama is telling the truth. Same-sex-marriage opponents assume he's lying to get elected and will show his true colors in a second term; proponents hope that's true, and that he's just waiting for the right moment to be honest. Given his past statements and his repeated talk about "evolution," these are not unreasonable interpretations. So the question is, when does Obama come out -- so to speak -- for gay marriage? Conventional wisdom has been that even though a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, he doesn't want to risk a backlash with working-class, socially conservative voters he needs to win reelection. But Biden and Duncan's comments have aroused suspicion that maybe that isn't the case. Here's conservative journalist Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner:
Biden endorsed same-sex marriage on Meet the Press Sunday. Duncan on Morning Joe today. Obama leading from behind again.— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) May 7, 2012
And that's the question. Did Duncan and Biden go rogue? Are they floating a trial balloon for a possible announcement before November? Or is this all just another carefully choreographed step in the Obama administration's double game?
Here is Biden's Meet the Press appearance: