Months before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, one of his top advisers turned to a former George W. Bush aide and chairman of the Republican National Committee for advice.
There’s a tick-tock in Wednesday’s New York Times that details Obama’s “evolution” on gay nuptials, revealing that David Plouffe sought assistance from Ken Mehlman in late 2011.
Mehlman, who helped guide Bush’s re-election and served as chair of the RNC from 2005 until 2007, had come out of the closet a year earlier.
According to the Times, Mehlman reassured Plouffe. “The notion that politically this is going to kill you — I don’t buy it,” he said.
Mehlman surveyed 5,000 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and found that a majority supported some form of legal recognition of gay relationships. Generally, marriage was not a top priority for most Republicans, meaning that a presidential endorsement was unlikely to motivate the G.O.P. base or attract the kind of full-throated Republican criticism it might have in years past.
On Nov. 10, 2011, Mehlman sent Plouffe an email suggesting that the president announce his support for same-sex marriage in a TV interview with a female host. He also laid out specific language for Obama to use. Explain that this was a family decision and not a political one, he advised:“Michelle and I have been having a similar conversation in our family that lots of American families have been having on marriage equality.I fully understand that some will agree, while others will disagree, with where our family has come down on this.” Mehlman advised Obama to talk about his daughters — “as Michelle and I have been thinking through what we teach Sasha and Malia about America’s greatness” — and about religious liberty and fairness to all. “When you’re president, you’re president of all Americans. And all includes gays and lesbians — men and women who are serving across this country — firefighters, doctors, teachers, courageous soldiers who serve and protect the rest of us.”
Plouffe responded to the email immediately: “Thanks for this.”
In May of 2012, days after Vice President Joe Biden said he’s “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage, Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality. Mehlman’s advice did not go unheeded.
The president made the announcement in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, who publicly acknowledged her own same-sex partnership for the first time late last year.
And as Mehlman suggested, Obama talked to Roberts about how he and the first lady addressed the issue with their two daughters.
You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I– you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin’ around the dinner table. And we’ve been talkin’ and– about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would– it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And– and frankly– that’s the kind of thing that prompts– a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated– differently, when it comes to– the eyes of the law.
Mehlman came out in a 2010 interview with The Atlantic. Since then, he’s campaigned for marriage on the state level.
He has expressed remorse for his role in the 2004 Bush campaign’s exploitation of same-sex marriage.
“At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort,” Mehlman told Salon in 2012. “As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I’ll do my part to be helpful.”