10/24/2012 09:05 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Silence on Gay Issues in the Debates: How That Helped Romney, Not Obama

In a Washington Post column headlined "Silence Is Golden on Gay Issues," my longtime colleague and friend Jonathan Capehart heralds it as "a great thing" that gay issues weren't discussed in the presidential debates this year. The Human Rights Campaign's Fred Sainz agrees, telling Capehart, "What we're seeing is proof positive that gay issues aren't the wedge they used to be and furthermore, the public has moved on."

Really? Though LGBT rights now have the support of a big majority of Democrats and independents, they're far from a non-issue for the vast majority of Republicans, who oppose same-sex marriage, and certainly for the evangelical base of the GOP, which helped keep Rick Santorum competitive during the primaries.

The only reason these issues weren't discussed in the debates is that the moderators -- members of the media -- didn't ask about them. And far from being a "great thing," right now that helps Mitt Romney, who is racing to the center and would rather not talk about how he's in favor of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make gays second-class citizens, or about how he signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage vowing to appoint federal judges who would rule against gay marriage.

Without having to discuss that, his opposition to anti-discrimination laws or his support for the Defense of Marriage Act (now on its last legs in the courts), while getting the late endorsement of the subservient and validation-starved Log Cabin Republicans yesterday, Romney presents himself as a moderate to women, suburban voters, independents and undecideds who might be uneasy voting for someone with harsh views on gay rights. For many, but particularly for those much-discussed low-information voters, seeing a gay group support Romney, while his hard-right positions on the issues haven't been elucidated in the general election, helps convince them that his positions aren't as extreme as they've been made out to be.

When LGBT issues were a wedge used against Democrats, moderators and media interviewers brought them up regularly during presidential elections, hurling them at Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry, forcing the Democratic candidate to either offend a part of his base or alienate other potential supporters, while the Republican candidate could use the issue to shore up his base. George W. Bush did just that, and he didn't worry about alienating independents, because they either didn't care about the issue or were as opposed to marriage equality as everyone else.

But now that things are just about reversed, where the issue is a wedge for the Republican candidate -- and when the Democratic candidate actually touts his gay rights record in his stump speech on the campaign trail -- the media has decided it's a non-story? And that's a good thing?

I don't buy that. There's a stark difference between these two candidates on LGBT rights, more than between any presidential candidates in history, just as there's a stark difference on women's issues and a stark difference on economic policy. Sure, the economy is taking precedence right now as an issue, but few doubt that it was important when ABC's Martha Raddatz got around to the issue of abortion and contraception with the vice presidential candidates. And it's too bad that neither she nor any of the presidential debate moderators asked about gay issues. On this one, silence is golden only for Romney, as he tries to present himself as a moderate and win the election.