People say the vice president of the United States never gets do to anything. I think Joe Biden may have just cast the die for the ballot question in the next election.
In an election campaign, candidates and parties talk about their extensive platforms, but they always try and boil the election down to a ballot question.
It could be national security.
It could be change or stability.
It could be who should take the 3 a.m. phone call.
Until midday yesterday, it was the economy. Arguably, the president was ready to fight on that battleground, and it was where the Romney camp was beginning to aim its body blows.
However, the field of play just changed.
Whether this is the ballot question that people talk about, this will be the uber-question of the campaign. Whether it's what you hear at the doorsteps, in the stumps, or on TV, it will be the meta-message behind it and always alluded to.
In spite of the fact that progressives project hugely on to Obama, we've been waiting for this for a long time. That said, I'm sure that the president would rather have waited to deal with this issue until after the election, a la Medvedev.
The fact is that there is a wing of the Republican party that is going to fight this tooth and nail (some won't -- including one fairly prominent Republican who was just a heartbeat from the Oval Office).
I've never understood why the Republicans let themselves be pigeonholed on this issue. Conservatives in Canada have been far more comfortable with a libertarian reading of equal marriage: think Nancy Ruth and Jaime Watt.
Of course political parties want a ballot question that they think is a winner. The NDP is no different. That's why we made our ballot question in the fall election: Who do you trust to put people like you first?
It's why the Liberals ran on bland stability, and the Tories on something slightly more difficult to needle out (frankly, their narrative going into the campaign was strong -- economy -- but by two weeks in, their message box had gone a bit pear-shaped -- immigrant workers?).
However, there are certain issues that will simply take over a campaign. I think this may be one of them.
Some questions have predictable answers, and some are more volatile. The question of equal marriage is going to polarize America in a way that I don't think the economy ever would.
It's simply unpredictable. Where equal marriage is legal, it's come through the courts. Where it's been specifically banned, its come through ballot initiatives. The bans on interracial marriage were struck down with the 14th Amendment (which was a reconstruction amendment), not with ballot initiatives.
And, indeed there were arguments made that laws banning interracial marriage probably would have failed.
Let's too not forget that a Demoratic White House signed DOMA with large majorities in both houses, though Republican were close.
And arguably more important, North Carolina voted not only to ban equal marriage, but also civil unions, and this was a blue state with lots of swing potential that has an educated, middle-class voting population.
I'll be frank: I think that Americans, like Canadians, should be able to marry the person they love. But this is going to be an unpredictable issue. I hope that America's better angels prevail.
Anyone who thinks this has made the election results more predictable, has got another thing coming. This election just got a lot more complicated.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why ballot questions are important.