Opinions on the issue of same-sex marriage have "evolved" — to use President Barack Obama's term — at lightning speed over the past year. It was May 2012 when Obama endorsed the concept, and since then dozens of politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have said their opinion has changed as well. So far, Louisiana's senior U.S. senator, Mary Landrieu, has not been among them, and the frustration among national Democrats has risen — particularly among younger Democrats, who in some polls support same-sex marriage by as much as 80 percent.
Faced with such numbers, many other politicians are "evolving" quickly. In the past month alone, 12 U.S. senators, including two Republicans, announced their support for same-sex marriage, giving it a Senate majority. Of the holdouts, only three are Democrats: Landrieu, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arkansas' Mark Pryor. Not surprisingly, both Landrieu and Pryor represent deep-red states — and both are up for re-election in 2014. Both, in fact, were tagged by the political website Roll Call as the two most vulnerable senators up for re-election next year.
Landrieu's current stand is an uneasy one. In late March, she said her personal opinion on same-sex marriage has, like Obama's, "evolved," but that "the people of Louisiana have made clear that marriage in our state is restricted to one man and one woman." She added that she supported "the outcome of Louisiana's recent vote" (it was nine years ago). One day later, speaking to CNN, Landrieu said she personally believed "people should love who they love and marry who they want to marry" — but then stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage.
Those expressing disappointment over Landrieu's fence straddling should remember two things. First, any show of support for same-sex marriage right now would be entirely symbolic; there are no votes on the issue coming up in the Senate. The current battlefield is the U.S. Supreme Court. Second, gay and lesbian groups have considered Landrieu an ally over the years, particularly for a senator from a state as deeply conservative as Louisiana. Louisiana's delegation in Washington has only two members who have been at all friendly toward such issues: Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Landrieu has voted for expanding the definition of hate crimes to include gays and lesbians, for employment protections and against the constitutional amendment that would have put a same-sex marriage ban in the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, she has supported civil unions for many years, despite Louisiana voters' unfortunate enshrinement of a ban against same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state Constitution.
The gap between Landrieu's demurral and Democrats' frustration with her should be viewed through another lens: how blue New Orleans is compared to the rest of the state; and how red Louisiana is compared to the rest of the country. A recent Pew Center survey found that 53 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage, while 56 percent of Louisianans do not. Whether Landrieu's reluctance to step forward on this issue shows a lack of courage is debatable. It's a sure bet, though, that her opponents next year are going to tune up the old "family values" fiddle, even if the national GOP is trying to turn down the volume to appeal to a broader audience.
U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has already declared his intention to run against Landrieu next year. He no doubt will make an issue of any Landrieu endorsement of same-sex marriage. If Family Research Council (FRC) president Tony Perkins also challenges Landrieu, as he has indicated he may do, the contrast would be even clearer. Perkins, like U.S. Sen. David Vitter, has made no secret of wanting to amend the U.S. Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. Last week, Perkins and the FRC threatened to end their support of the GOP if the party moved an inch on the issue.
The prospect of another hard-right Republican representing Louisiana in the U.S. Senate is probably why organizations like the Forum for Equality, a Louisiana-based advocacy group for gays and lesbians, have soft-pedaled any criticism of Landrieu. Much of the pressure on Landrieu has come from outside Louisiana.
Profile in courage? No, this is a profile in pragmatism. While disappointing to Democrats who would like Landrieu to lead on this issue, her position reflects the time and the state in which we live. Given the likely field in the 2014 Senate race, Democrats will have to decide whom they prefer: a moderate Democrat they know, or the prospect of a Vitter clone who, most certainly, will never "evolve" on this important issue.