While CNN Anchor Questions Relevance of Social Issues, Anderson Cooper Leads Off With Segment on Gay Marriage

On Tuesday's In the Arena, fill-in host Christine Romans questioned Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List on the relevance of the abortion issue in the upcoming presidential election. She argued that the central issues, according to polls, are the economy and jobs and that focusing on politicians' stances on abortion might not be a viable strategy.

Ironically, Anderson Cooper opened up CNN's 10 p.m. hour with a "Keeping Them Honest" segment scrutinizing a certain politician's flip-flops on same-sex marriage – President Obama.

During In the Arena, the Susan B. Anthony List's Dannenfelser questioned the loyalty of certain Republican presidential candidates to the pro-life movement. Romans seemed to take issue with that, and then pressed her on the viability of focusing on this issue given that economic issues are taking center stage with the American people.

"But isn't it central conversation in American living rooms when the top thing on the all the polls right now is the economy and jobs?" she asked.  "I mean do you worry that it marginalizes this as a wedge issue when so many people are focused on jobs and the economy?"

However, Anderson Cooper had no trouble questioning the loyalty of President Obama and the Democratic Party to the gay-rights agenda at the start of the 10 p.m. EDT hour of his show.

"Does the Democratic Party take gay Americans for granted? Feeling that well, look, they're not going to go to the Republican Party?" Cooper asked his panel – which consisted of liberal and hyper-partisan Paul Begala and a gay rights activist.

"The President is now saying, well, my opinion on this is evolving, which is clearly kind of a hint to people in the gay community, people who do support same-sex marriage that maybe he will one day support it. I mean is he trying to have it both ways?" Cooper asked.

Cooper detailed Obama's different stances on gay marriage over the years – sometimes opposed and other times supportive – and he seemed quite interested in where Obama's beliefs lie for the 2012 elections.

"Paul, just politically, though, this is a president who – I mean he's a politician and he weighs things very carefully and often tries to find consensus and walk a middle ground. Do you think it's likely that he actually would say he is for marriage equality for gay Americans before the elections?"

For a transcript of the segment, which aired on June 21 at 10:00 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight New York lawmakers are now just one vote away from legalizing same-sex marriage. President Obama is heading to New York later this week for a fundraising event with members of the gay community. But new questions are being raised about what the President actually believes about gay marriage and whether his public opposition to it is real or just political posturing. Tonight, we're "Keeping Them Honest."

In 1996 when he was a college professor running for Illinois State Senate from a wealthy liberal Chicago neighborhood, Barack Obama answered a question in a local paper called "Outlines." He checked a box next to the sentence, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Well, it seems pretty clear cut, doesn't it? But once he was actually in office, his position suddenly and inexplicably began to change. In 1998, responding to an Illinois State Legislative National Political Awareness Test here's how he responded to the question, "Do you believe that the Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages?" His answer: "Undecided."

By 2004 on the verge of his campaign for national office, the United States Senate, Mr. Obama was telling the "Windy City Times" that he supported civil unions saying quote, "I think that marriage in the minds of a lot of voters has a religious connotation. I know that's true in the African-American community." Then four years later, running for president, appearing at the Saddleback mega-church in southern California talking with Pastor Rick Warren, he said quite clearly he was against same-sex marriage.

(...)

COOPER: So that's the chronology. In 1996 he supported same-sex marriage and said he would fight for it. Twelve years later, running for president, he opposed it and says he still does, though he now says his position is evolving. It's hard to see how the President's position has changed so much. The only thing that has changed is his need for a wider audience to vote for him. Now, in the last several days the White House seems to have struggled with exactly what to say about the President's flip-flop over the years on gay marriage. At Net Roots Nation last week, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer was asked about that 1996 questionnaire.

(...)

COOPER: So he seems to be saying the President didn't ever support same-sex marriage. Denying the President signed that questionnaire. Dodging whether he said what he said in it. Yesterday a reporter for the Washington Blade asked Press Secretary Jay Carney about that same questionnaire. And as you'll see the answer – well, I guess you can say it is evolving as well.

(...)

COOPER: So it's interesting. He admits the 1996 survey was signed by Barack Obama, but you'll notice he avoids saying if the President believed what he said back then, and avoids explaining why the President has apparently changed his position or even why it's now evolving back to what it may have been 12 years ago. I spoke about all this a few moments ago with a Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Cleve Jones, human rights activist, colleague of the late Harvey Milk and founder of the NAMES project Aids Memorial Quilt.

(Video Clip)

COOPER: Paul, how is it possible that then-Professor Obama said he is in favor of same-sex marriage, and now he's had this evolution to where he's now longer – no longer in favor of it? I mean it's got to be just be politics.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN political contributor: Well, probably it is. I don't like to criticize other people's motives, but at that time his politics were all about winning a state Senate district, a very progressive part of Chicago, which is a progressive city. Then the politics changed. He became a young man on the move, Illinois a much different place than just his little district. And he then came out against it.

It is just politics. I have to say on this one he's kind of behind the American people. He was way ahead of us, frankly, on healthcare, on the auto bailout, on any number of issues. But on this one he is a lagging politician. We have a narrow majority of Americans who now support full equality in marriage for all Americans. And I think the President's a little late to the party, frankly.

COOPER: It's interesting, Cleave, because people who are opposed to same-sex marriage point to President Obama and say, well look, President Obama doesn't support it as well. Do you believe he actually doesn't support it? Or do you think this is just he made a political calculation of you know what, I'm just going to say I don't support it even though maybe I really do?

CLEVE JONES, gay rights activist: Well, I think it's clearly a political calculation. And sadly I think it's the wrong one. I think this president needs to re-energize his base. I support the President. I campaigned for him. I anticipate campaigning again. And I believe that the role that he and his advisors would wish me to play would be to be re-energizing the base. And this is not the way to do it. He is definitely behind the curve. The evolution of the country on this issue is proceeding at a far more rapid rate than his own. So I'm concerned about it. And this visit to New York, given the situation there right now, I think, puts him in a very difficult position.

COOPER: You know, Paul, Democrats attack conservatives for being hypocritical on issues that they're hypocritical about. But I don't hear a lot of Democrats attacking their own president for hypocrisy. The President is now saying, well, my opinion on this is evolving, which is clearly kind of a hint to people in the gay community, people who do support same-sex marriage that maybe he will one day support it. I mean is he trying to have it both ways?

BEGALA: Well, sure. All of us do and certainly politicians no different from the rest of us. I don't think it's hypocritical though at all. I do think there may be – who knows, I can't peer into his heart – there may be some authentic evolution here. But Cleve makes a good point. He's a little late to this. And there is I – I know this, as a political –

COOPER: But how do you evolve from "I support it in '96" to "I don't so support it" to "oh, you know, well, I'm thinking maybe I'm going to support it"? I mean, it just doesn't logically make a sense.

JONES: He seems to be evolving backwards. That is of concern.

BEGALA: Sort of devolution. But no, no it also – look, the politics did change. But here's the politics he needs to worry about. Were I advising him I'd say, you know, Mr. President, you've got 73 percent of the gay vote when you ran in 2008. Now, that was less than John Kerry got. John Kerry got 77. It's the only real heart of our base where you did less well than John Kerry, at least that I came across. And so – and by the way, two years later in 2008 the Democrats in 2010, rather, only got 69 percent. So we've had an eight-point erosion in our performance among gay Americans. We need to do something. Cleve's exactly right. We've got to do something to energize this base or Republicans will continue to gain with gay Americans, even though I don't think their agenda reflects the gay community.

COOPER: Does the Democratic Party take gay Americans for granted? Feeling that well, look, they're not going to go to the Republican Party?

JONES: There's great cynicism and enormous frustration with this administration. And of course, as in my case, it's also mixed with a lot of affection and respect. But the fact that they would continue to defend "don't ask don't tell" for as long as they did, the fact that he's already stated that in his view, the core of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Well, then he should sign on to Senator Feinstein's Bill to repeal it and signal some support there. I have been working with Courage Campaign trying to get more co-sponsors for Senator Feinstein's legislation.

The momentum is clear. The tide of history is clear. His window of opportunity to – to stake his claim on the right side of history is diminishing rapidly. He needs to move. And right now, with this opportunity in New York, is an extraordinary opportunity. He could really move us all forward very decisively. I hope he'll hear this and do that.

COOPER: Paul, just politically, though, this is a president who – I mean he's a politician and he weighs things very carefully and often tries to find consensus and walk a middle ground. Do you think it's likely that he actually would say he is for marriage equality for gay Americans before the elections? Or is that something he would do after the election, when politically, there wouldn't be a price to pay?

BEGALA: Oh, I think he's likely to do it. This is not based on any insights, I don't talk to those guys and gals down at the White House. But I think he's likely or certain to do it before the election, because he's going to have to. People are going to come to him, as they came, the White House Press Corps today and say well, you had this position then and now this –

COOPER: So you think he will come out publicly for it?

BEGALA: I do. That's my best guess. Now, I – one political problem he's got with doing it right now – he should do it right now because of this vote in New York. New York's state Senate is one vote away from full marriage equality.

JONES: Yes.

BEGALA: And he's going to be in New York. But here's the problem politically. He's going to be at a fund-raiser from – hosted mostly by the LGBT community. I got to say, if you go to a fund-raiser and then endorse the agenda of the people who are giving you money that looks kind of bad politically as well. I almost – I hate to say it – I know he needs the money. I almost wish we didn't have the fund-raiser and could just focus on that vote in the state Senate in New York.

JONES: It's going to look a lot worse when he goes there to ask these people for money, and then has to somehow explain to them that in his view, they still don't deserve equal protection under the law. So he's in a – in a difficult position. The right thing to do would be to do the right thing.

COOPER: Cleve Jones, it's great to have you on the program; Paul Begala as well. Thank you.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014