Mitt Romney greets Vietnam War veteran Bob Garon during a campaign stop at the Chez Vachon Restaurant on Monday in Manchester, N.H., where Garon, who is gay, questioned Romney about his position on gay marriage.
Mitt Romney greets Vietnam War veteran Bob Garon during a campaign stop at the Chez Vachon Restaurant on Monday in Manchester, N.H., where Garon, who is gay, questioned Romney about his position on gay marriage. Jim Cole/AP
Mitt Romney's position on gay rights doesn't quite lend itself to a bumper sticker. Depending on whom you ask, it is either too thoughtful and nuanced, or too inconsistent and politically expedient. Either way, it's definitely got the GOP presidential candidate on the defensive.
There was a reminder of that Monday when Mitt Romney was forced to defend his opposition to gay marriage during a restaurant encounter with a grizzled Vietnam veteran named Bob Garon, who happened to be gay.
"The story on same-sex marriage is that I have the same position on that I had when I ran from the very beginning," Romney said in an interview last month with the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire.
"I'm in favor of traditional marriage. I oppose same-sex marriage. At the same time, I don't believe in discriminating in employment or opportunity for gay individuals. So I favor gay rights; I do not favor same-sex marriage. That has been my position all along."
Always Opposed Gay Marriage
The second part of his statement is clear: Romney does not favor gay marriage. He supports the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that bars federal recognition of gay marriage, as well as a constitutional amendment to do the same.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney did everything he could to stop gay marriage there after the state's high court allowed it.
Romney responded to the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision by vowing to keep the state from becoming, as he put it, "the Las Vegas of gay marriage." At the time, Romney stated: "I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. ... Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman."
But back during his first political run in 1994, Romney aggressively courted gay voters, promising to do more for "full equality" for gays and lesbians than his Massachusetts opponent, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Today, Romney denies any inconsistency.
"What happened was that the gay community changed their perspective as to what they wanted," Romney told CNN's Piers Morgan this summer, elaborating that when he talks about gay rights, he's never meant gay marriage, but rather equal opportunity in jobs and housing.
"I oppose same-sex marriage," Romney told Morgan. "At the same time, I would advance the efforts not to discriminate against people who are gay."
Romney declined an interview with NPR for this report.
"You cannot in the same breath say that you support non-discrimination against LGBT people and that you support DOMA," said Ned Flaherty with Marriage Equality USA. "It makes no sense."
Flaherty adds that since job benefits often depend on marital status, Romney can't claim to be for equality and against same-sex marriage.
"Someone who says that either doesn't know what they're talking about, or they know full well what they're talking about and hope you don't know what they're taking about," says Flaherty.
'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
Flaherty also claims that Romney contradicted himself on the issue of gays in the military.
Back in 1994, Romney said he viewed the military's then-newly adopted "don't ask, don't tell" policy as a first step toward letting gays and lesbians "serve openly and honestly."
But during his first run for president, Romney defended "don't ask, don't tell" during a 2007 GOP debate on CNN.
"When I first heard of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, I thought it sounded awful silly and didn't think that'd be very effective, and I turned out to be wrong," Romney said. "It's been the policy now in the military for, what, 10, 15 years — and it seems to be working. This is not the time to put in major change, a social experiment, in the middle of a war going on."
"I would call it a sharp retreat from where he was," says Clarke Cooper, head of the gay advocacy group Log Cabin Republicans. He says Romney's position is at odds with core conservative principles of federalism.
"Welcome to my world. This is the frustration," says Cooper. "Gov. Romney is not so different from other conservatives."
Romney has argued that a federal definition of marriage is needed as a practical matter. "You really can't have different marriage provisions in different states, and then expect people to be able to move around the nation and have different rights in different states," Romney told CNN in 2009. "There should be a national standard. And in my own view, is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman."
"Gov. Romney was a champion on the battle for marriage in Massachusetts. Right from the get-go, he was rock solid and that's never wavered," says Kris Mineau, the head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who has been working with Romney against gay marriage since 2004.
Romney may indeed have changed tone or emphasis over the years. For example, in 1994 he vowed to make "equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern," while a decade later, he was bewailing that same-sex married couples were "actually having children."
But Mineau maintains Romney has never actually contradicted himself, or flinched in his opposition to gay marriage.
"I think he's getting a bum rap. Nothing has changed. And I believe that he has been solid right from the start, and he will remain solid," says Mineau.
But if he makes it through the primaries and advances to the general election, Romney may be tested in that, since polls now show a slight majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage.