CHARLOTTE — Stop us if you’ve heard this one: A major political party, trying to rekindle the flame of enthusiasm that died down to the embers after a presidential term that didn’t live up to expectations is turning to social issues — and fear of radical social change — to rally its base back to the polls.
No, it’s not the Republican Party of 2004. It’s the Democrats in 2012. With the establishment GOP and its nominee, Mitt Romney, trying to keep a lid on its social views, Democrats see a window of opportunity on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. And on the first night of their convention here, they hammered away at social messaging in a way that the conservative right could only dream about last week in Tampa.
The night began with the formal adoption of the Democratic Party platform, which for the first time in the history of major political parties, called for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Democrats tied same sex marriage to a broader discussion of immigration and other civil rights — all areas where Democrats feel they have the advantage.
“Diversity is America’s strength, and only by working together, as one nation, can we form a more perfect union,” said Jared Polis (CO), an openly gay member of Congress. “It’s why [Obama is] fighting to make citizenship a reality for young immigrants who go to college or serve in our military. It is why he repealed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ so that no person is prevented from serving the country they love because of whom they love. And it is why Barack Obama became the first sitting president in American history to show his personal support for same-sex marriage.”
In speech after speech, Democratic heavyweights took the stage to laud their party for backing marriage equality and slam the other side for continuing to oppose it — all to wild enthusiasm from the crowd. In the stands in the convention hall and the streets in the city around it, same sex marriage has become a rallying cry for Democrats and something they’re ready to put right out in front during a closely contested election.
Compare that to the Republicans, who mentioned their defense of traditional marriage on stage but certainly didn’t hold full press conferences about it. The party that leveraged gay marriage in 2004 to help boost President George W. Bush to re-election is much more toned down about the topic.
Some conservatives want to have the conversation — a small ad buy by a conservative group opposing gay marriage bracketed the start of the Democratic convention — but for the most part, Team Romney and the GOP don’t put their opposition to same-sex marriage front and center.
It’s the same story with abortion. In Tampa, Romney immediately distanced himself from his party’s anti-abortion plank (which makes no mention of exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother), placing himself to the left of the official Republican Party stance.
Romney also tried to back out and away from abortion entirely in the wake of the Todd Akin blowup, which put Republicans on the defensive about their strict anti-abortion stance. After being pressed on his party’s platform, Romney finally tried to end the conversation by saying there’s nothing he could do about abortion rights as president anyway.
Abortion got mentioned on the Tampa stage, but the GOP clearly wanted to talk about something else. Not true for Democrats, who proudly put the president of NARAL, Nancy Keenan, before a roaring crowd in Charlotte.
“We believe in funding family planning because it helps to prevent unintended pregnancy. We believe that a woman considering an abortion should not be forced to have an ultrasound against her will,” she said. “We believe that rape is rape. We believe that a woman should make health care decisions with her family, her doctor, and her God. And we believe that there’s no place in that room for politicians — especially politicians who don’t know how women’s bodies work.”
Democrats have been hammering the GOP on social stuff for much of the cycle, taking advantage of the gifts on abortion and other issues the hard-right conservatives in the House have given them. Fear of what a GOP takeover of the White House would mean for gay rights and abortion rights has been a central theme of Democratic messaging, and that carried over to Charlotte Tuesday.
Meanwhile, mainline Republicans have been forced to back away from — or run screaming away from in the case of Akin — some of their party’s social conservative leaders.
Case in point: the contraception fight. Republicans had to back away from what they saw as a winning battle over mandated contraception coverage after the Rick Santorum wing of the party said women who don’t want children ought to just not have sex. There were vague references to the battle in Tampa but for the most part grumbling about contraception coverage is strictly on the back-burner within the GOP.
In Charlotte, on the other hand, Democrats are sporting bright pink T-shirts with birth control pills on them.