THE BLOG

Playing the Obama Card in California's Fight for Gay Marriage

11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While the presidential election has preoccupied the minds of most progressive Californians, there is a ballot initiative which, at this point (with our guy in the lead), merits at least as much of our attention, if not more. Proposition 8 seeks to amend California's constitution by adding the phrase "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." For clarity's sake, a "yes on 8" vote means eliminating the right to marry for gay and lesbian couples (which the California Supreme Court recently recognized is a right protected under California's Constitution), and a "no on 8" vote means preserving marriage equality and equal treatment under law for all Californians.

While early polling showed "No" winning, a recent infusion of cash (much of it coming from out-of-state donors) and subsequent ad campaigns (with the usual "activist judges" meme and bogus claim that schools would would be forced to "teach our kids that gay marriage is okay") have boosted Prop 8's chances of passing. The latest polling shows "Yes" winning, 48%-45%.

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan implored Obama to get involved and cut an ad for the "No on 8" campaign. Not because of Obama's general popularity, but specifically because of the weight his word would carry with African-Americans, who disproportionately (more than any other racial group) support Prop 8 (58%-38%):

Memo to Obama: make an ad. Speak loudly. Defend equality. Defend it when it might actually lose you some votes. Show us you are not another Clinton.

It would be courageous and maverickly progressive, but the arguments against Obama getting directly involved with the Prop 8 campaign are strong and obvious. Obama and Biden have staked out a moderate mid-ground on gay marriage and no one in the campaign is eager to rekindle a culture war in the waning days of a campaign which has them headed for victory. It would be precisely the type of distraction from the economy that the McCain/Palin camp has been yearning for.

But Obama's usefulness in the Prop 8 campaign doesn't have to be as explicit and direct as Sullivan envisions. Indeed, Obama does have a role to play in convincing African-Americans to help defeat Prop 8, and he's already laid the groundwork. On January 20, 2008, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Obama gave a speech before the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. During his speech on Scripture and Dr. King's legacy at Dr. King's church, Obama said the following:

For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays --- on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

(quote at 10:42 into video)

And during his acceptance speech in Denver, Obama intoned, "I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination."

To be sure, Obama's statements fall short of unqualified support for same-sex marriage, but they go to the heart of the No on 8 campaign's themes (equality and dignity), and the No on 8 campaign would be wise to incorporate them in advertisements. In fact, they'd be foolish not to use them. Here are a few tips: buy ad time on BET, on the CW (during "Everybody Hates Chris"), and TBS (during "Tyler Perry's House of Payne"), and pass out fliers with Obama's quotes this Sunday outside AME Churches. Even if Obama's direct participation in the No on 8 campaign is a non-starter, he has provided enough material to move public opinion a few points in the right direction. And with only 3 percentage points currently separating "yes" and "no", that may be all that's needed.