Both candidates were stuck by the question, because they were trying to play to multiple audiences, though Palin had it the hardest because her main purpose in the campaign is to shore up McCain's support among the fire & brimstone social conservatives, yet she knows that coming out and saying, "Well, I don't support gay marriage because I think gay people should burn in hell for eternity," would win her points with the crazies and lose her just about everybody else. She knows that the topic has become one of language: "gay marriage" is a negative for most voters, but "civil unions" are increasingly popular, because we have, thankfully, gotten to a point in our general culture where the majority of people seem to agree that actively discriminating against same-sex couples is obnoxious and heartless. Civil union laws remain controversial with conservative activists, but most everybody else seems to recognize that there are more important things to worry about.
Palin might have scared some of her most socially reactionary supporters (the ones whose beliefs walked with the dinosaurs), but I bet the majority of her supporters understood what she was saying: When it comes to civil rights for not-exclusively-heterosexual people, we'll be utterly and completely passive, and if there's any way we can claim they're injuring one of our favorite abstractions (e.g. "the institution of marriage"), we'll attack with pitchforks a-blazin'.
Biden played the other side of the fence, and in some ways made an opening for a radical idea. He, too, stayed away from the unpopular "gay marriage" term, specifically saying he and Obama do not support it (which is true, if I remember correctly, for all the candidates except Kucinich -- who, by the way, gave a fun speech at the Democratic convention), and this shouldn't have surprised anybody -- it was, remember, a Democratic president who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. Biden, though, made a strong statement in support of fully equal civil rights:
Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely, positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.Match this with what he said a few moments later, though, when he denied that he supported gay marriage (this is taken from the AP's transcript):
No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths, the determination, what you call it.I don't know if Biden knows the direction his statement is moving toward, but it's a direction I hope we're able to keep -- it would, taken to its logical conclusion, make marriage something that is left to churches and other other groups to define as they desire for their members, and make the government's job simply to offer civil unions to everyone. It would get the government out of the business of marriage, leaving it the simple and appropriate role of certifying a couple's legal standing.
Of course, this would be a difficult concept to sell to the sectors of the public that want government to regulate marriage, and those sectors would, I expect, claim the government was trying to destroy all marriage, etc. The conservative argument for such a change, though, could be made from two standpoints: maximizing freedom and minimizing government. (The challenge is that social conservatives only like to maximize freedom for themselves and have no desire to minimize the power of government to regulate the social sphere.) The liberal argument would be one of equality under the law and getting rid of the separate-but-equal marriage system that the you-can't-get-married-but-you-can-get-civilly-unified system creates.
Biden's syntax and phrasing got tortuous when he tried to say that marriage is between people and their faiths, and I think he struggled not just because he was speaking extemporaneously, but because somewhere in his mind he realizes the various tensions in his logic. I expect he's too much of a cautious politician to make the leap, but his statement gave me hope that in the next decades we may be able to move closer to real equality.