The media -- pretty much all of them -- just got "played," by the Obama campaign. And they don't even realize it yet. What we just witnessed, for roughly the past four days, was not a "breaking story" or even an "evolution" of any sort. What we just witnessed, capped this morning by President Barack Obama's statement of support for gay marriage, was nothing more than the introduction of a new (political) product. It was a "new and improved" product rollout -- nothing more, nothing less.
Before I begin to back that statement up, a personal note. This column is an odd one for me to write, for several reasons. The first is I don't usually like to jump into the fray of "snap judgments" on breaking news story, preferring to let the dust settle a bit before commenting. The second is (believe it or not) I was already going to write about this today -- although the conclusions I would have drawn would have been far different (and mostly wrong), if, say, Obama had released his gay marriage support an hour after I had published what I was going to write. Third, I'm not really going to address the core issue itself -- gay marriage support -- because I'm totally focused on the political/media nexus instead. Lastly, I'm about to use an argument that I never really bought into back when it was a popular argument to make (circa 2008-2009).
During Obama's last campaign, and during about his first year in office, there were those on the Left who would tell you (whenever there was news about Obama doing something inexplicable) not to worry, because he was playing "multi-dimensional chess" while his lesser opponents were desperately trying to play checkers. Obama was the mastermind, the master game-player, in this construct. I never fully bought into this argument, although it was a common one heard back then.
But this time, it's hard to see it any other way. The Obama campaign team just brilliantly snookered the entire media universe -- right, left, and center -- into generating a news frenzy days before a major campaign announcement was rolled out. Imagine, if you will, that none of the past week had happened, and Obama said the same thing today. Well, it would have been a story, but it wouldn't have been a week-long story, perhaps. That's the difference, and that's why Obama's team scored a big coup in the media world.
Their timing, I have to admit, was as close to perfect as can be imagined. Last week, there was a story making the rounds about a Romney national security advisor who had quit/been booted from the Romney team. The reason? He was gay. The hardline social conservatives had forced Mitt to kick him out -- that's the way the story played in the media (admittedly, this was a wonky and small-bore story that few who don't obsess over politics even noticed). The issue had just about died down at the end of last week, though.
Then Joe Biden goes on Meet The Press. On it, he comes out in support of gay marriage. The media world started buzzing: Biden! Gay marriage! Veep pushes boss! Retraction! Confusion in White House! Everyone, pay attention!
Arne Duncan, secretary of the Department of Education, then goes on another television news show and says the same thing Biden said. Stop the presses! Cabinet member pushes president! Gay marriage turmoil at White House! Film at eleven!
Next, North Carolina votes (as expected) in a big way, to ban gay marriage once again (they had previously banned it, they just wanted to really, really ban it this time). What would Obama say and do? White House in disarray! Conflict! Drama!
Which leaves us with today's statement -- getting exponentially more media coverage than it normally would have, because of the "dramatic" buildup. At the present moment, the media has bought into their own storyline so completely that they haven't realized what just happened. But within a day or so (possibly sooner) the media is going to realize that all of these "coincidences" are a little much.
In the advertising world, there is a technique that uses some variation of the following: rent a billboard, paint it white, and put simple letters on it: "Watch This Space." Leave it up for a few weeks. Then change it to: "Watch This Space, One Week To Go." Then start a countdown: "Watch This Space In Three Days!" By the time you put up the actual billboard (for some new product), you have generated more interest in it through sheer curiosity than you would have normally gotten. I don't know if there's a college course on "Advertising 101" but if there were, this would be one of the examples taught.
Barack Obama didn't just wake up this morning and decide to support gay marriage. That is the line the media is currently running with, which they have swallowed -- hook, line, and sinker. Call it "Obama's Gay Marriage Evolution Completed Today!" perhaps. I, for one, don't buy it. I think this was engineered as a week-long story to insure that the Obama team would absolutely own the airwaves this week, to the detriment and frustration of the Romney team. I further think the Obama team had this figured out a while ago, and were just waiting for Romney to enter into the gay rights debate in some fashion. When the aide was let go, the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps they would have rolled it out anyway, timed to coincide with the North Carolina vote, or perhaps not.
Anyone doubting this has only to watch Biden's performance on Meet The Press. Biden could -- very easily -- have just dodged the question, with a simple "the president sets such policy, and his views have been evolving" which has been the standard administration talking point for quite some time now. Not only did Biden fail to dodge, he spent quite a bit of time explaining his position, and he actually had -- ready to go -- a heartwarming story to tell, to help him emotionally make his point. Here is Biden, from the show's official transcript:
Look -- I just think -- that -- the good news is that as more and more Americans become to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that's what people are finding out is what -- what all marriages, at their root, are about. Whether they're -- marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.
. . .
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.
. . .
Well, the president continues to fight, whether it's Don't Ask, Don't Tell or whether it is making sure, across the board, that you cannot discriminate. Look -- look at the executive orders he's put in place. Any hospital that gets federal funding, which is almost all of them, they can't deny a partner from being able to have access to their -- their -- their partner who's ill or making the call on whether or not they -- you know -- it's just -- this is evolving.
And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far. And I think -- people fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand. They're beginning to understand that this as a base --
I -- I was with -- speaking to a group of gay leaders in -- in Los Angeles -- LA -- two, two weeks ago. And one gentleman looked at me in the question period and said, "Let me ask you, how do you feel about us?" And I had just walked into the back door of this gay couple and they're with their two adopted children. And I turned to the man who owned the house. I said, "What did I do when I walked in?" He said, "You walked right to my children. They were seven and five, giving you flowers." And I said, "I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys. And they wouldn't have any doubt about what this is about."
Now, you can argue that this was nothing more than "good ol' Joe" being spontaneous. I don't buy it, however. I think Joe was the advance scout doing what, in politics, is called "running it up the flagpole to see who salutes." I could be wrong, but I became more convinced of this when the education secretary also chimed in the next morning.
Before today's announcement, the most intelligent thing I read on the issue was written by Wayne Besen on the Huffington Post. Besen accurately takes into account the whole of the political risk Obama would take by actively supporting gay marriage. Since the announcement, the most intelligent thing I've read is a post today at "The Fix" blog on WashingtonPost.com. Both point out that this is not a "slam dunk" for the president, politically. There are risks. Two of those risks are known as "North Carolina" and "Virginia."
Sure, there are plenty of possible benefits to such a bold stance for Obama. Young people and gay people and other significant portions of Obama's base will be wildly enthusiastic about this news. I, personally, am enthusiastic about this news (just in case this article reads too much like a conspiracy theory to anyone). I think the actions taken by the Obama campaign were, indeed, brilliant. They positioned their "new product" in the political world about as masterfully as I've ever seen a campaign do so. This bodes well for the fall.
Beyond Obama's base, this puts Mitt Romney on the defensive, once again. It paints him back into the far right corner. On an issue he really would rather not be discussing right now, Romney is solidly on the wrong side of history -- and Obama's stance painfully points that out to everyone. The more Republicans rant and rave on the issue of gay folks, the more young voters they lose -- it's a simple equation. And, because the actual interview with Obama isn't going to air until Thursday morning, the story will continue to dominate the week's news cycle.
I was never a big fan of the 2008-2009 argument, I have to admit. Machiavellian tactics don't usually work out so well in the political arena. The media is so cynical it's hard to get one by them in such a fashion. But this time, I have to admit, President Obama certainly does resemble Spock playing multi-dimensional chess while his opponents are staring at a checker board.
To put this another way: Bravo, Obama re-election team. Well done.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant