Last month Nate Silver had this to say about the media's (and therefore most people's) understanding of political strategy:
Think how much different the conventional wisdom would be if Al Gore had won 300 more votes in Florida. Bush's strategy of rallying to the evangelical base would have been considered a failure, as would the Rovian politics of personal destruction. But instead, because of what was essentially a mathematical coin-flip -- the vote count was so close in Florida that nobody really knows who won -- these things are considered to be standard operating practice in any competent campaign.
While watching the vice-presidential debate back whenever that was I got a pretty clear view of the fact that the actual campaigns are (as one would expect) thinking in more sophisticated ways, from how the candidates handled the topic of gay civil rights and marriage. In just four years it's turned from a wedge issue into a consensus issue (note: this doesn't mean that I think, in this case specifically or in the general case, that just because politicians claim the same position in a debate that their likely actions are the same; here, a President Obama would be much more likely to initiate gay-rights legislation than a President McCain). In this particular debate Joe Biden sounded a lot more comfortable taking and explaining the position than Sarah Palin did. To be expected, not just because Palin isn't comfortable doing much but reading a script, but because this new consensus position is the one that Democrats have been sitting on for at a few years. Yay progress?
Well, at least, if you ignore the fact that the position is completely incoherent. It with the claim that gay couples should have the same legal rights as straight ones, with respect to things like contracts and hospital visitations. The argument is made either on the basis of interpretations of existing laws or through appeals to the virtues of fairness and tolerance. Either way, it's an argument based in questions of how to best govern, not in the politician's personal beliefs. Then the question of gay marriage comes up; the position says, "no," and the arguments say things like, "I don't believe in gay marriage." Politicians of all stripes hide behind the phrase, "one man and one woman," knowing that if they use those five words they won't have to answer any more questions. Now it's about personal beliefs.
I'm sure this has been Focus-group-ed Up Beyond All Recognition, and that's currently the place to sit safe. Can't support gay marriage, it's too radical. But you can't pass a Constitutional amendment banning it, that's too radical the other way. You'll never hear anyone defend that middle ground as a specific position, only pull it out when claiming someone else is too extreme. You'll also never hear a reason why public policy on marriage is supposed to be determined by somebody's arbitrary personal beliefs. As long as we don't expect politicians to provide one, they'll have plenty of personal beliefs, borne of convenience, coming into play.