Image on the line, Romney treads carefully
Governor Mitt Romney, elected a year ago on a pledge to reform state government and revive the Massachusetts economy, is suddenly enmeshed in a complicated, divisive moral debate, with the eyes of the nation on him.
The gay marriage issue is not of his choosing; during last year's gubernatorial campaign, he took pains to finesse questions of gay rights, and such issues have hurt him previously in his political career. Now Romney is struggling to find a middle ground on a subject that polarizes voters, and he may find his political fortunes tied to how he handles the highest-profile issue he has faced thus far as governor.
"Governor Romney has an eye on the White House, and this presents an enormous obstacle from here to there," said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "For the national Republican Party, the court's decision was a gift -- Christmas came early. But not so for Governor Romney. He has a decision here that can affect the future of his career, and I don't think he's figured out what he's going to do."
Romney has sold himself as a moderate Republican, reaching out to independent and swing voters with middle-ground positions on abortion and health care for the poor, and by offering a low-tax, business-friendly message in a state dominated by Democratic elected officials. It worked in last year's election, as he succeeded in keeping social issues largely in the background.
The Supreme Judicial Court's ruling that same-sex couples are permitted to marry presents a minefield for a governor who is looking to establish a national Republican profile while not alienating the Democrats and independents whose support he needs to stay in office.
Romney has already begun seeking out a centrist position in a debate prone to be defined by extremes. Barely an hour after the court's opinion was made public on Tuesday morning, he delivered a nuanced, carefully prepared response that included elements to satisfy both sides of the political spectrum.
The governor denounced the court ruling and came out strongly against gay marriage, promising to support the Defense of Marriage Act, which would amend the state constitution to ban such unions. He quickly added that he will work with the Legislature on a parallel track to establish some rights for same-sex couples.
He repeated his position yesterday to a far wider audience on NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America."
"I agree with 3,000 years of recorded human history, which frankly is a contradiction of what the majority of the Supreme Judicial Court said," Romney said on "Today." "Of course, at the same time, we should [be] providing the necessary civil rights and certain appropriate benefits" to same-sex couples.
A few hours later, Romney seemed to modify his position, telling reporters that he believes the court would allow some version of civil unions to be approved instead of outright gay marriage. He has not provided a full list of what rights and benefits he believes the civil unions should carry with them, but has said health coverage and hospital visitation rights should be included.
Romney's effort to frame the debate reflects a realization that there is nothing he can do to keep himself out of it. The governor and his aides began discussing how they would respond to the ruling over the summer, as the state and the nation waited for a decision that everyone knew could be a bombshell.
"The governor is not a social crusader. He did not run for office to crusade for or against gay rights," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director. "But sometimes issues are forced upon you, and they require a response. . . . The governor has taken a consistent, principled position."
Under the court's ruling, the Legislature has 180 days to craft a response, and Romney's post as governor will force him to take politically perilous stands during this period. The calendar injects another intriguing element into the discussions: Romney is up for reelection in 2006 -- the same year that the Defense of Marriage Act would go to voters, if the Legislature approves it now and again in the 2005-2006 session.
Romney's promise to work on behalf of an amendment to ban gay marriage could muddle his message to voters in 2006, when he is likelier to stress his efforts to rein in government excess and keep taxes low. On the other hand, the amendment could draw more social conservatives to the polls -- a likely boon for the governor.
His vocal support for the amendment could lead to gay marriage being banned after two-plus years when it was legal. It could make Romney a hero to the right, but a demon to the left.
"He could damage us hugely, and it's neither necessary nor appropriate," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "He has every right to his own personal and religious beliefs, but it is not right to try to impose that on everyone else."
Rob Gray, a GOP consultant who has done work for Romney, called the governor's approach to the issue forthright and said it stands in contrast with the Democratic Legislature. Last year, lawmakers used a procedural maneuver to avoid a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
"He's not going to hide from the issues that this debate will present, and that puts him in good stead with the voters," Gray said. "It gives Romney even more of a platform to criticize the Legislature as typical politicians who are out for themselves and not for the will of the people."
As Romney knows well, issues of gay rights and gay marriage can be politically explosive. Last year, his Democratic rival for the governor's office, Shannon P. O'Brien, saw her campaign battered after she unexpectedly endorsed gay marriage a few weeks before the election, after months of saying she supported only civil unions.
In his 1994 US Senate race, Romney found himself in a political firestorm after several people who attended a Mormon Church gathering said Romney described homosexuality as perverse and said he was appalled by gays in the congregation. Romney denied using the word perverse, but said he advised against nonmarital sex -- both homosexual and heterosexual -- in accordance with church teachings.
In last year's campaign, Romney took heat for serving on the board of the Boy Scouts, which excludes gay men from serving as Scout leaders, and for having donated $1 million in 1998 to Brigham Young University, which bans homosexual conduct on its campus. Asked about that in the campaign, he said he would support domestic partnership benefits, at one point saying they would become a "hallmark of my leadership as governor."
Romney often bristles at suggestions that his personal religious beliefs have any bearing on his public policy positions. Whatever the root of his feelings, the governor views gay marriage as a "gut issue" that he cannot support in accordance with his own moral code, Gray said.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.
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