Whose Hand Grenade?
Why the gay marriage debate
may hurt Bush more than his
opponent in 2004
While terrorists detonated car bombs in Istanbul and Osama bin Laden plotted further mayhem from the comfort of his new mountain retreat, American religious conservatives swarmed to Washington to hold emergency meetings on the real enemy: lesbian soccer moms and suburban gay dads. Terrorists might hijack passenger jets, but sodomites are hijacking marriage, all with the help of those wretched liberals on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who decided that the ban on same-sex marriage in that state must end.
'The time is now,' thundered Sandy Rios of Concerned Women for America on her radio program. She sees a link between same-sex marriage in America and our 'enemies' out there, not unlike Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on 'gays, lesbians and feminists.' Bin Laden and his followers share this anti-gay world view, but the irony is lost on Rios.
'If you don't do something about this,' she warned her listeners, sounding like the mullah of the American Taliban, 'then you cannot in 20 years—when you see the American public disintegrating and you see our enemies overtaking us because we have no moral will—you remember that you did nothing.'
Not to be seen as doing nothing, the White House dispatched a public statement immediately following the Massachusetts high court's decision, somewhere between Air Force One's flight over the Atlantic and George W. Bush's arrival at Buckingham Palace. Tens of thousands of Britons hit the streets to protest Bush's and Tony Blair's invasion and occupation of Iraq, with the demonstrations culminating in the toppling of a paper mache statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square—shortly after those bombs in Turkey ripped through a British bank and the British consulate, killing 27 people. But to Bush, the truly apocalyptic events were happening back home, or so we were to believe.
'Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,' Bush said in a statement from the overseas trip. 'Today's decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle. I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.'
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What exactly that action will be remains to be seen. While Bush has hinted at support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution (pushed by some conservatives in Congress) that would ban gays from marriage, he's not said it outright, and other conservatives in Congress are lukewarm to the idea. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, who'd previously supported the amendment—and faced disagreement from some in his party who don't want to get bogged down in a culture war or want to do something as drastic as amend the constitution—was backing away from it even in light of the Massachusetts decision.
The Congress has already codified this principle in the Defense of Marriage Act, passed overwhelmingly by 85 votes in the Senate and signed by President Clinton,' he said.
In between the Michael Jackson arrest story and the Bush London trip, political pundits hit the airwaves to babble on about how the Massachusetts decision was a problem for the Democrats who are running for president, all of whom support gay rights. Some even said that, from a political perspective, it must have been a happy day in the White House. But that analysis is simplistic. While it's true that all of the major Democratic candidates squirmed, trying to support the decision of the court while stating that they don't support same-sex marriage over civil unions for gays, it doesn't follow that the decision will hurt the Democrats—or help Bush.
Same-sex marriage is not like welfare, affirmative action or some other wedge issues that work well because those using them are able to make a case to voters that the issue affects them personally. (For example, in the case of affirmative action, Republicans float the idea to white voters that their jobs are being taken away.) It's hard to make a case that the average American is hurt by same-sex marriage, even if the average American opposes it. While a majority of Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage, a new Pew Research poll shows that only a small minority want to amend the constitution to ban it. It's likely that Bush and the Republicans will remain cagey about lending support to a Constitutional amendment.
Few if any Democratic, Independent or Republican swing voters (most of whom are moderates) are going to look at the Democratic candidate for president and say, 'Okay, I like his economic policies, and I like his foreign policy positions, and I like his views on this and this and this. But I don't know, I'm not into his support of gays now that the same-sex marriage issue is in the media, so I'm voting for Bush.' If anyone is voting on that one issue, they're already voting for Bush and are part of the religious right.
And if Bush and the Republicans aren't going to back an amendment to the constitution, which is what the Christian conservatives want—'We fully intend to use this as a litmus test for offices from president to street sweeper,' Rios told The New York Times—then they can't really talk about same-sex marriage, or the Democrats' support of civil unions, all that much in the election campaign. If they do, the zealots will once again point to a Constitutional amendment as the only way to stop same-sex marriage, while those like Frist will say that the Defense of Marriage Act has already done the trick. That will only serve to underscore that same-sex marriage is not an issue, angering the religious right further.
Of course, there's the chance that the Bushies will get desperate if the meltdown in Iraq continues and the economy doesn't get a serious enough jolt to positively affect the polls. In that case, they may turn to the culture wars, pushed by Christian right leaders' warnings that their followers will stay home next November if Bush doesn't support amending the Constitution.
But the last time this strategy was followed—by Bush's father, who gave his Houston convention over to Pat Buchanan—the Republicans scared the daylights out of moderates and lost. Up until now I thought this issue could be a big plus for Bush and the Republicans. But the more I see the religious conservatives' mania spin out of control, the more it seems this could be the last thing Bush needs.
Michelangelo Signorile hosts a daily satellite radio program on Sirius OutQ, 149.He can be reached at www.signorile.com .