Tim Kaine Skirts Same-Sex Marriage Questions

Tim Kaine Skirts Same-Sex Marriage Questions

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 8, 2012

Vice President Joe Biden's comments over the weekend that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage has put pressure on his boss and prominent Democrats to define their positions on the subject. When pressed Tuesday, U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine danced around the issue: He would not come out in support of gay marriage, but said he fully backed “relationship equality.”

"The underlying issue is: Should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal yes,” Kaine told reporters at a breakfast briefing sponsored by the centrist think tank The Third Way. Kaine, a former Virginia governor who most recently served as Democratic National Committee chairman, said he campaigned against a Virginia amendment banning gay marriage in 2006 because he believed the law left “committed couples” without the same legal protections as everyone else.

Kaine is running against another former governor, Republican George Allen, for the Old Dominion Senate seat held by Democrat Jim Webb, who is retiring. A new Washington Post poll released Tuesday finds the pair in a dead heat, each attracting 46 percent of the support. The Virginia race will be among the most competitive in the county, and could determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress next year. (To underscore the closeness of the contest, the Post poll found Kaine and Allen in a tie at 46 percent one year ago.)

Gay marriage has not been an issue in the Virginia race. But Biden’s comments and the president’s so-called “evolving” stance on the issue drew reporters to question where Kaine, who is running as a “close friend and supporter” of the president, stands.

“I believe in the legal equality of relationships,” Kaine said Tuesday. “The debate about, is it marriage? Is it civil union? Is it domestic partnership? I kind of let that one go and just say the legal issue is: Should committed couples be treated the same by law? And I think the answer is yes.”

Kaine, a devout Catholic, said churches should be able to “make their own decisions about which relationship they want to celebrate,” but that “as a matter of law, I do fundamentally believe couples should be treated equally.” Kaine approaches abortion rights in a similar way. He personally opposes abortion but does not believe government should make that decision for women. He disagreed with President Obama’s original health care mandate that religious employers provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans, asking to broaden exemptions for such institutions. The White House’s later adjustment met his requirements.

A Harvard law school graduate who spent the early part of his career as a civil rights attorney, Kaine approaches the issue of gay marriage with that kind of legal perspective, his campaign would argue. But when asked whether gay marriage is a civil right, he returned to his terminology. “Yeah, but what I would say is: Relationship equality is a civil right. I believe that.“ But should gay couples be allowed to apply for a marriage license? “There should be a license that would entitle a committed couple to have the same rights as a married couple,” Kaine said. “I think the labels actually get in the way of the issue.”

The moderator of the discussion pointed out that labels are the issue surrounding same-sex marriage. A reporter asked whether it would be accurate to describe Kaine as a supporter of gay marriage. “Just say I’m for relationship equality,” he said.

The debate over whether members of the same sex should be allowed to marry entered the national news cycle this week following Biden’s comments. But it is also somewhat of a specter for Democrats. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will chair the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina later this year, proposed the addition of marriage equality to the party’s platform.

When asked if he agreed, Kaine said he hoped his party would affirm the issue in the terms he described. “What you call it and how you label it and how you describe it is not unimportant; it is important," he admitted. "But I think the most important issue, really, is the issue of legal equality, relationship equality, and I think that is definitely a unifier on the Democratic side.”

Voters in North Carolina, a state Obama hopes to win again after taking it by a narrow margin four years ago, on Tuesday are expected to support a ban on same-sex marriage in the state. The president is walking a fine line on the issue, and risks alienating voters on both sides. Unlike Biden and other prominent Democrats, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Obama has not endorsed same-sex marriage. Instead, the White House characterizes his views as “evolving.”

“People like to ding the president on that word,” Kaine said Tuesday. “The answer is that’s exactly what’s happening in our society.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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