BY DAN KENNEDY
The problem for the Democrats is that time may well be on their side, but not in 2004. Robert Sullivan, the associate editor of CommonWealth magazine and someone with a daunting command of obscure political facts, says that the party’s support for gay-and-lesbian rights — even marriage — will be a plus in years to come, because such stands are popular with young voters. According to a 2001-2002 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, cited by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report, 58 percent of college freshmen support same-sex-marriage rights.
The question in 2004 is not just how the issue will play out, says Sullivan, but where. It probably won’t make much difference in the Northeast, which leans strongly in favor of gay rights and which a Democrat must win to have any chance of being elected president. Same with the South, which is anti-gay, rock-ribbed Republican country. But in some Western states, such as Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, Sullivan says, the public is "bitterly divided" between religious conservatives and pro-gay-rights progressives. If a fight over gay marriage (or civil unions) energizes the progressive vote sufficiently to move Arizona and Colorado into the Democratic column, Sullivan says, the party could retake the White House without winning a single Southern state.
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner’s), argues that the fastest-growing segments of the electorate — women, minorities, and professionals — all lean heavily Democratic. In a recent analysis, Teixeira wrote that the Supreme Court’s Texas decision "is starting to move the law to where the public already is. Over the past several decades, there has been a striking shift toward tolerance of homosexuality, as part and parcel of an overall social transformation toward a diverse, tolerant, postindustrial society. That’s America’s future, and it’s a future leading elements of the GOP are completely out of touch with."
But when I asked Teixeira about marriage, his assessment was similar to Goldman’s.
"Who knows how many years down the road, but I think that in a decade or so we’ll get to the point where a majority of people think gay marriage is acceptable. We’re just not there yet," Teixeira said. "We’re still at a point where it presents danger for the Democrats. This is the cutting edge of the gay-rights issue. It’s not the comfortable center of the gay-rights issue."
PARADOXICALLY, THOUGH, if same-sex marriage is a dangerous issue for the Democrats, it may prove to be even more dangerous for the Republicans.
The last time the GOP let its wingnuts take center stage was at its 1992 convention, in Houston, where Pat Buchanan delivered a speech so hateful that the Texas pundit Molly Ivins joked it sounded better in "the original German." That November, George H.W. Bush received a pathetic 38 percent of the vote.
No doubt that’s why George W. Bush’s reaction to the Texas sodomy decision was so measured. Senate Republican leader Bill Frist — a Bush ally who is generally considered to be a moderate — immediately came out in favor of a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to one man and one woman. But Bush himself told reporters, "I don’t know if it’s necessary yet. Let’s let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."
What Bush may have in mind is that there is already a federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the books, signed by Bill Clinton during one of his more shameful moments, as well as DOMAs in 36 states. Those laws prohibit same-sex marriage and ban recognition of such marriages performed in other jurisdictions. Presumably, a federal right of same-sex marriage could not take effect until someone challenged the DOMA laws and took that case to the Supreme Court. By the time the court ruled, Bush would already be into his second term if he’s re-elected in 2004.
Moreover, the president already has allies who are trying to sell his re-election message to pro-gay moderate voters. Recently, for instance, former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson gave an interview to Newsweek Online about a new group he’s helped form called the Republican Unity Coalition. "I don’t think there’s anyone in America [who] doesn’t have someone close to them who’s part of the gay or lesbian population," he said, specifically citing Mary Cheney, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter. True enough, but what about marriage? Just the media trying to stir up trouble, he replied.
Bush will certainly try to play it cute. Indeed, he already does. Last winter, when Mississippi senator Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s racist 1948 presidential campaign, Bush spoke out and Lott was forced to give up his position as Senate Republican leader. But when Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum denounced same-sex marriage this past spring — even going so far as to make a bizarre analogy to bestiality — Bush hailed him as "inclusive."
Bush wins praise in some circles for having quietly appointed about 20 gays and lesbians to key federal positions. Yet he supports no important gay-rights legislation — not domestic-partnership benefits, not hate-crimes legislation, not even the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The president is also a politician with a proven talent for staying above the fray while others do his dirty work. (Remember John McCain’s "black love child" in the 2000 South Carolina primary campaign?)
Thus, one danger is that Bush will find a way to energize the religious right while remaining silent himself. In December 2001, according to an account in Investors Business Daily, Bush political strategist Karl Rove said that 15 million religious conservatives voted for Bush in 2000 — four million fewer than he had anticipated. Rove took the high road, saying that they had probably been turned off by Bush’s "compassionate conservatism," and that the Bushies would have to go hunting elsewhere for votes in 2004. But still, there must be times when Rove wonders whether it would be possible to drive up the religious-right vote without provoking a backlash among moderates.
Unfortunately, such a strategy may not be all that hard to pull off. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says of Bush, "I can’t see him using harsh rhetoric, but I can see the Republicans using direct mail to get the point across to appropriate voters. If anything will drive up conservative-Christian turnout, it’s gay marriage."
And it wouldn’t even have to be a nationwide campaign. A tightly targeted effort in just a few key states might be enough to do the trick. Quiet, below radar, and potentially deadly. Molly Ivins wouldn’t even notice until it was too late.
GAY AND LESBIAN couples from the United States are already going to Canada to get married. It’s only a matter of time before their demands to be accorded all the rights and protections that other married couples receive ends up in a US-based courtroom. It could happen in Massachusetts as well, should the SJC grant full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and out-of-state couples come here to wed.
Thus we may be witnessing the endgame in the long struggle for gay and lesbian equality. Sean Cahill, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, notes that the federal government and the states have always recognized marriages performed in other countries — even those that would have been illegal in the US, such as those involving underage brides. Why, he asks, should same-sex marriage be any different?
The difference, of course, is that the federal government and 36 states have DOMA laws that refuse recognition of those marriages. Eventually the matter will wind up before the Supreme Court, where Cahill is confident that DOMA laws will be found to "violate the full-faith-and-credit clause of the Constitution."
What will happen then? In the current issue of the New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen argues that "the political backlash against a judicially created right to gay marriage would be so swift and dramatic — at least in the immediate future — that it would set back the cause of gay and lesbian equality rather than advancing it."
That’s one decidedly pessimistic view. Another is that as married same-sex couples become more visible, even culturally conservative communities will come to terms with gay marriage. They may not like it, even as some today may still rail against mixed-race marriages. But as they come to see that it is no threat to them, the storm may eventually blow over.
Which means that politicians such as John Kerry and Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, may be doing exactly the right thing: murmuring their support for gay rights, pushing for civil unions, and refusing to get sucked into a controversy over what does and does not constitute marriage.
"You’re a very smart man, and I’m not trying to pander to you," Sam Donaldson said to Howard Dean on Tuesday, "but it’s the word itself."
Yes, it is. And there may come a time when the Democrats, by embracing that word, can enhance their standing not only with gay and lesbian voters but also with the public at large.
But not now. Not yet.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.