Partisan Paradox

Maybe conservatives are right and liberals really have been driven mad by their hatred of George W. Bush. How else to explain the fact that many progressives have greeted the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts' decision on same-sex marriages not as a triumph but as a source of despair? Liberals seem to fear that the decision will play into Bush's hands, allowing him to tar Democrats next year as supporters of gay marriage, which remains a relatively unpopular cause. The fact that the decision was the right one and that discrimination against homosexuals is abhorrent has, for many liberals, apparently become secondary to considerations of partisan politics.

The New York Times reported as much this morning:

For Democrats, such declarations raise the unwelcome prospect that next year's presidential contest will be fought, at least in part, on the kind of cultural issues that have repeatedly put them at a disadvantage over the last 20 years. And it seems certain to add to the burden they are already carrying as they contemplate competing with President Bush in the once solidly Democratic South, aides to several Democrats said.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates went to great lengths on Tuesday to emphasize that they opposed gay marriage, even as they restated their support for some forms of legal rights for same-sex couples. But the candidates also voiced strong opposition to any constitutional amendment barring gay marriage; supporting it would be nothing short of suicide in a Democratic primary. But that stance provides what even Democrats said would be a clean target for Republicans to hammer next year.

It's an ugly frame of mind, and it's far from clear that it's an accurate one. For one thing, unlike on other so-called cultural issues -- such as abortion and gun rights -- where the left has been losing ground for years, the progressive position on gay rights has been steadily gaining support for several decades. Even with the right ascendant in the political sphere, the cultural arena that shapes public opinion on such topics has become increasingly gay-friendly. An October USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that just 48 percent of the public believes gay marriages "will change our society for the worse," and 50 percent feels the change would either be an improvement or have no effect. Notably, younger Americans -- who are often described as being more culturally conservative than their parents on issues like abortion -- are much more likely to support equal rights for gays and lesbians. In the USA Today poll, for instance, 63 percent of 18 to 29 year olds and 53 percent of 30 to 49 year-olds said that gay marriage would cause no harm or change society for the better.

To be sure, this split in opinion still leaves the anti-gay forces with a political edge, seeing as the cons outnumber the pros by a significant margin. But the key point is that the crucial middle ground -- which, taken together with those who favor gay rights, forms a majority, however slim -- is held not by gay bashers but by people who basically don't care.

It is in this middle ground that elections are won or lost, which is why the political dynamics of gay rights may pose more problems for Republicans than for Democrats. It is very unlikely that politically committed homophobes were being tricked into supporting liberal candidates for office based on the Democratic Party's refusal to embrace same-sex marriages. It's long been clear which of the two parties is the more gay-friendly one. The groups that stoke the fires of anti-gay sentiment are all aligned with the Republicans, and Democratic candidates everywhere are frequently tarred with alleged opposition to "family values" no matter what they say or do on the issues.

Indeed, the political genius of current Republican strategy has been to signal the GOP's agreement with the conservative base's anti-gay agenda without actually doing much of anything about it. Action, after all, would alienate Republican leaders from the American center, which may not be eager to embrace gays and lesbians but isn't necessarily interested in seeing them bashed in the political arena, either. The median American voter thinks -- quite rightly -- that gay marriages will have no real impact on his or her life, and hardly thinks that the government should make them a top priority in a time when the country is facing pressing problems of joblessness, war and terrorism. Nevertheless, electorally critical evangelicals remain obsessed with homosexuality -- a topic that, as libertarian pundit Virginia Postrel recently explained, provides them with a way to distance themselves from popular culture (and therefore enforce religious commitment) without imposing any self-sacrifice.

Until now, the White House has been able to neatly finesse the issue with actions like the proclamation of Marriage Protection Week and public statements that "marriage is between a man and a woman," which comfort the base while flying below the casual political observer's radar screen. Vague statements of support were all that was needed to appease the right because in a world where no states actually permit gay marriage, there was little more the Republican Party could do.

Now, however, the voices calling for the passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) are going to grow louder. The proposed amendment reads, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." As written, the intent of this amendment is fairly extreme: Not only would it prevent states from recognizing gay marriages performed in other states, it would prevent all states from permitting same-sex marriages.

In short, all bluster aside, this amendment has nothing to do with reining in judicial activism and everything to do with permanently freezing the status quo into place before rapidly shifting public opinion leaves conservatives in the dust. According to the amendment's backers, the second sentence is intended to prohibit only judicial imposition of quasi-marital "civil unions" schemes, but some readers of the text have made the case that it would prevent the establishment of civil unions by state legislatures as well. After all, the simplest reading of an injunction that no law "shall be construed" so as to grant the "legal incidents" of marriage to gay couples is that no law -- even one passed by a state legislature specifically for the purpose of establishing civil unions -- shall be construed in this manner.

Opposing the FMA should be politically easy: It's a divisive, unnecessary and extreme statement on an issue about which Americans have fluid opinions. It's also something that most Americans regard as being distinctly less important than jobs, education, national security, health care and all the rest of the stuff that normal politics is about. Supporting it would make the president look petty, not to mention distinctly uncompassionate. Moreover, it would give Democrats an exciting opportunity to confront Bush with Dick Cheney's pitch for gay rights from the 2000 vice-presidential debates.

For the Bush administration, the decision on whether or not to support such an amendment offers no good options. The White House's reluctance to declare its support for the measure earlier indicates GOP concern that a price would be paid at the polls for such action. At the same time, Karl Rove has clearly indicated his hope that millions of evangelicals who skipped the 2000 election can be brought to the polls next year to counteract underlying demographic trends that bode very poorly for a party built around, well, white people. A Bush administration failure to endorse the Christian right's pet cause wouldn't send evangelicals into the Democratic camp, of course, but it would pose serious difficulties for Rove's voter-mobilization project -- particularly in the wake of the president's failure to secure confirmation for the holy rollers' favorite judges.

Glenn Stanton, senior analyst for marriage and sexuality at the conservative group Focus on the Family, seemed, when I interviewed him this afternoon, to be sensitive to the president's need not to get too far ahead of the public on this issue. He pronounced himself satisfied with Bush's response so far, but stated that his group will be "very interested to see what he proposes" as the administration fulfills its promise to work with Congress on a response to the issue. Stanton believes the best solution is the FMA, but he's also open to the idea of legislation that would remove marriage issues from the courts' jurisdiction. Apparently, letting the legal system sort out the issue itself is not an option, nor is trusting the Defense of Marriage Act to defend marriage on its own.

"The Constitution is going to be defined one way or another," Stanton says. "Either the court can do it or the American people can do it." Stanton avoided saying that the president would pay a political price for failing to hew the conservative line adequately, but he did say that all presidential candidates -- from both parties -- must now face the issue squarely. "It's hard to get people concerned about a coming earthquake when they don't feel the tremors," Stanton says. But now the first quake has come, and it is the president -- rather than any Democrat -- who is standing on the fault line.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

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