The conventional wisdom says that same-sex marriage will unite Republicans and divide Democrats. But that can cut both ways.
BY DAN KENNEDY
Marriage comes to gay and lesbian couples: complete coverage
Listen to Henry Santoro's FNX interview with news editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar
Forum: Tell us what you think about same-sex marriage
National Democrats should embrace the issue. By Dan Kennedy
Why the court ruling is so strong. By Harvey Silverglate
Next steps on Beacon Hill. By Kristen Lombardi and Susan Ryan-Vollmar
Media overdrive. By Camille Dodero
People are talking. By Chris Wright
Plaintiffs rejoice. By Adam Reilly
Right wing plots counterattack. By David S. Bernstein
City councilors back SJC decision. By Deirdre Fulton
From our archives: Meet the plaintiffs in Goodridge et al. By Kristen Lombardi
YOU KNOW WHAT’S going to happen, don’t you? You know what the Republicans are going to do now that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry?
They’re going to preen about like a bunch of puffed-out peacocks, that’s what they’re going to do. Senate majority leader Bill Frist is going to thump his chest over a constitutional amendment to defend the sanctity of marriage or some such thing. House majority leader Tom DeLay is going to prattle on about family values. George W. Bush is going to squint and smirk and swagger and spit, trying to stay above the fray while letting everyone know exactly where he stands.
And the Democrats are going to get knocked over by a flying wedge. Just like they always do.
It started even before the sun set on Tuesday. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who is — try not to giggle — the most powerful Democrat in Washington, was quoted not on what a great day it was for equality, or on his wish that the example set by Massachusetts will spread across the land. Oh, no. Instead, Daschle talked about how he hoped the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — that loathsome law signed in the middle of the night by Bill Clinton seven years ago — would prevent the contagion from spreading. "We passed the Defense of Marriage Act by an overwhelming margin on a bipartisan basis. The law still stands today, and I think it would under any court scrutiny," Daschle mewled.
It was no better with the Democratic presidential candidates. The good news is that three of the nine favor same-sex marriage. The bad news is that they’re named Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dennis Kucinich, and they’re running seventh, eighth, and ninth in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.
As for the so-called serious candidates, they used the occasion to remind everyone of how muddled they are.
Front-runner Howard Dean issued a press release that managed not even to use the word marriage, telling everyone instead — as if we didn’t already know — that he signed Vermont’s civil-unions law when he was governor. "One way or another, the state should afford same-sex couples equal treatment under law in areas such as health insurance, hospital visitation, and inheritance rights," Dean said. One way or another.
John Kerry — who still hasn’t figured out that if you try to take both sides of an issue, you wind up with neither — was quoted as saying, "While I continue to oppose gay marriage, I believe that today’s decision calls on the Massachusetts state legislature to take action to ensure equal protection for gay couples. These protections are long overdue."
Dick Gephardt came out against a) gay marriage, b) discrimination, and c) getting "side-tracked by the right wing into a debate over a phony constitutional amendment banning gay marriage." Dittos for Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. Wesley Clark posted a confusing statement saying that, as president, he would support equal rights, but that each state should be able to decide whether to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed in Massachusetts. Of course, this is the former general who — after the recent Rock the Vote debate — said he supports the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, but that he’s not sure whether "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" should be scrapped.
The trouble is that Democrats believe the conventional wisdom. They believe that supporting civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples is a loser for them politically and that, if they’re not careful, the Republicans will exploit it as a wedge issue, firing up their base of religious and social conservatives, frightening those all-important suburban independents, and generally pummeling the Democrats like it was 1988 and those seven gay and lesbian couples from Massachusetts were Willie Horton, the ACLU, and flag-burning denizens of Cambridge and Brookline, all rolled into one.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Does it? What if the Democrats grabbed the flying wedge and hurled it back at the Republicans? What if Howard Dean or John Kerry or Dick Gephardt were to embrace same-sex marriage and inveigh against the Republicans for their support of discrimination every bit as invidious as the laws banning mixed-race marriage a generation ago? Why is it that conservatives are always able to pretend that they are more patriotic, more religious, more moral than liberals? Why do liberals let themselves be put on the defensive over and over again?
Why can’t the forces of equality and justice wield a wedge issue of their own for a change?
GRANTED, THE NOTION that Democrats should openly support civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples is counterintuitive. According to a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 32 percent of Americans favor civil-marriage rights for lesbians and gays and 59 percent oppose it. Moreover, 78 percent of President Bush’s supporters oppose them, while those inclined to vote for a Democrat are split, 46 percent in favor of marriage and 48 percent against.
William Schneider, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a political analyst for CNN, says the problem for Democrats is that the only group strongly in favor of same-sex marriage is those under 30 years old. "They find it just as outrageous as Baby Boomers once found racial discrimination," Schneider says, which suggests that taking a stand in favor of marriage will be more popular in the future than it is today.
Indeed, among voters as a whole, Pew results show that support for civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples and other rights for gays and lesbians has actually decreased since last spring, when the US Supreme Court overturned state anti-sodomy laws in the Lawrence v. Texas decision, prompting Justice Antonin Scalia to issue his infamous warning that the court was paving the way for gay marriage. On the other hand, Schneider says, polls show that Americans oppose discriminating against gays. Given that, he believes the smartest strategy for the Democrats is to hang back and let the Republicans make the first move.
"There are a lot of suburban voters who do not want to be associated with a party that appears bigoted and intolerant," Schneider says, adding of the Republicans: "They can easily go too far and hand the Democrats an issue."
There is a problem, though, in placing too much stock in poll results such as the Pew findings, and it is this: those participating in the survey hold views that are shaped at least in part by the broader political culture. With Republicans strongly opposing civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples and Democrats weakly opposing them, there are no voices — other than those of activists — speaking up for the other side. (One is reminded of Harry Truman’s old dictum that if you give voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they’ll choose the Republican.) A major presidential candidate willing to embrace marriage would not only differentiate himself from the pack; he would also have an opportunity to shape and shift the public’s views.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says the Democrats seem not to realize that, in the public’s mind, they are already the party of civil-marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples — and that it can’t be otherwise, given the importance of gay and lesbian voters in the Democratic primaries.
"When Democrats go on the defensive instead of the offensive, they lose every time," Sabato says. "There is absolutely no way for Democrats to backtrack on this issue, whether they want to or not."
Sabato says that a Democrat willing to support marriage rights could drive a wedge right between the two wings of the Republican Party — the libertarians who vote Republican because of economic issues and the religious conservatives who back the party on social issues. It wouldn’t work in the South, Sabato concedes, and he notes that the Democrats are almost certainly going to lose the South anyway. But it might work in the Rocky Mountain states, which nearly always go Republican but which also have a strong libertarian tradition.
"How could they do it? They make it part of the platform, they put it right out front. They say, ‘This is basic civil rights, it cannot be compromised,’" Sabato says. "They portray themselves as willing to head into a strong headwind for principle’s sake. A lot of people admire that even if they disagree."
Of course, Sabato’s idea presupposes that if a politician leads, the public — or large segments of it, anyway — will follow. Maybe, maybe not. Certainly during an era in which politics is held in such low repute, it seems unlikely that a candidate, all by him- or herself, could move a substantial amount of public opinion on an issue as controversial as same-sex marriage.
And here is where liberals have been truly derelict. They have ceded the language of morality to the religious right, contenting themselves with court rulings and legalisms. Consider the role of religion. Yes, it is true that the two largest religious denominations in the United States — the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — are deeply opposed to gay rights. But there is a significant liberal religious movement in this country that has affected attitudes toward gays even in mainline denominations — such as the Episcopalians, who recently, amid much anguish, confirmed an openly gay, sexually active man, the Reverend Canon Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Those voices need to be heard more frequently and more loudly.
"Religious liberals are really working much harder now than before to say that there is a variety of religious views — there is not one religious view on this matter," says Bernadette Brooten, a professor of Christian and women’s studies at Brandeis University and the author of a 1996 book called Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism.
What’s necessary, Brooten adds, is for religious liberals to speak up for civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples in explicitly religious terms — something she acknowledges the right is better at doing than the left. "What typically has happened in the past is that liberal religious people, in arguing in the public sphere on matters on which the religious right argues, have argued in purely secular terms — ‘It’s a matter of privacy, it’s a matter of process, it’s a matter of equal protection’ — but have not argued that there are competing religious values. There is a religious value of justice, there is a religious value that all humans are creatures of God, there is a religious value that sexual intimacy is a moral good, that various forms of that can be seen as God’s gift to humanity."
Among those religious liberals who do speak out is the Reverend William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, one of several denominations — along with Reform Judaism and elements of the United Church of Christ — that can be expected to perform marriages of lesbian and gay couples once legal sanction is given. In 1984, the UUA General Assembly passed a resolution encouraging UU ministers to lead "services of union" for same-sex couples, although such unions had no legal effect. (Disclosure: I’m a UU, and am also an occasional paid contributor to the denomination’s magazine, the UU World.)
Sinkford — who, like many UU ministers, is part of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom To Marry — is careful to eschew party politics.
"It seems to me that the decision of the SJC was a decision in favor of families," Sinkford says. "Rather than being a wedge issue, this is, for us, really a justice issue, an issue for civil liberties, which I believe a growing number of Americans will agree with. If one or more of the Democratic candidates came out with a clear statement of support in favor of same-gender marriage, I would be delighted. I would also be delighted if candidates on the other side made that clear a statement. We certainly plan to continue raising our voice on this issue."