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Obama faces pressure over same-sex marriage

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who has fended off questions about his position on same-sex marriage for nearly a year and a half by saying his views are “evolving,” faces increasing pressure within his party as momentum builds to declare support for marriage equality in the party’s official platform.

Often derided as windy (frequently) and nonbinding (always), platforms nonetheless can play a crucial role in shaping a political party. Republican and Democratic platform debates in the 1980s crystallized the partisan divide over abortion. Earlier, the Democratic Party platform debate in 1948 marked an opening triumph of the civil rights era.

Gay rights groups and their allies believe this year’s platform can play a similar role for their movement.

That puts Obama in an awkward spot. He’s asking gay rights supporters for votes and money — he is scheduled to headline a fundraiser with gay supporters Tuesday in Florida — without committing himself on an issue of paramount concern.

At the same time, his allies have appeared to be prodding him to embrace, or at least not to block, language that would explicitly commit the party to support “the freedom to marry.”

Last week, four former Democratic National Committee chairmen issued a statement in support of openly endorsing gay marriage. They noted that nearly two dozen Democratic senators, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and tens of thousands of party activists already backed the idea.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will chair the Democratic National Convention, said last month that he supported a marriage equality plank because “it’s basic to who we are.”

“I don’t think the government should be in that business of denying people the fundamental right to marry,” Villaraigosa said at a Washington press breakfast.

Obama’s endorsement isn’t needed for the party to adopt a gay marriage plank, officials note, but with a high-profile issue on which feelings run high on all sides, staying neutral could be difficult.

Backers of the platform plank argue that full support for same-sex marriage could motivate Democratic constituencies and potentially appeal to independents. Given Obama’s backing for gays being able to serve openly in the military and his administration’s steps to provide federal benefits to gay couples, a further shift would do little to rally opponents, they say.

“The president has already taken so many steps in the direction of freedom to marry that he has a lot to gain and very little to lose in completing his journey,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, one of the principal groups backing the platform language. “This is where the party is. This is its vision for the future. … And it’s where the president ought to be.”

But some political advisers argue that an election-year epiphany on the issue would be seen as simple political opportunism at a time Obama’s campaign is eager to highlight principled decisiveness. And gay marriage remains controversial among at least one major constituency the president needs: African-American voters. Pastors of black churches, for example, have led the effort for a referendum in Maryland to overturn the state’s new law allowing same-sex marriage.

Democratic officials have sought to buy time, noting that the official platform process has not begun. The approximately 180 members of the platform committee will be in place by June. A 15-member platform drafting committee could be appointed by the Democratic National Committee at any point.

Obama has taken several stands that have pleased supporters of gay rights. In December 2010, he signed a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, something he now touts regularly at campaign events as a promise kept. Two months later, the Justice Department announced it would not support the Defense of Marriage Act in court, saying the federal law that bars benefits to gay couples even if they live in a state that recognizes them as married was unconstitutional.

Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt cited those stands, among others, in describing why Obama’s record on gay rights stood “in stark contrast to Mitt Romney’s.” But LaBolt avoided taking a stand on the platform, saying gay marriage was one of many issues that would be considered.

Wolfson and other gay rights supporters criticize Obama for failing to take the final step. His “lack of full clarity and authenticity gives opponents an opening,” Wolfson said. In New Jersey, for example, when Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation to make the state the ninth to legalize same-sex marriage, he parried criticism from Democrats by arguing he had the same position as Obama.

Gay rights groups want the platform to say the party “supports the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation … including the freedom to marry.”

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