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Embrace the wedge (continued)

Marriage comes to gay and lesbian couples: complete coverage

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

POLITICS IN Massachusetts is not like politics anywhere else. If you want proof, consider Michael Goldman and Charles Manning. Goldman is a Democratic political consultant, a liberal who advised presidential candidate Bill Bradley in 2000 and gubernatorial candidate Scott Harshbarger in 1998. Manning is a Republican consultant whose clients have ranged from the gay-friendly former governor Bill Weld to the incumbent, Mitt Romney, who backs a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would overturn this week’s SJC decision.

Yet Manning, oddly, is more sanguine about the politics of civil-marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples than Goldman is. Manning thinks the Democrats ought to go for it, saying they otherwise run the risk of watching the Republicans outmaneuver them. "It’s something that will get Republican voters out to the polls. But by being so wishy-washy and wimpy on the issue, the potential Democratic nominees will turn their base off," Manning says.

Goldman, on the other hand, says of the SJC ruling, "You can hear the popping of champagne corks all over the White House." Still, Goldman thinks Democrats could make the issue work for them if they can shift the focus away from marriage and toward the Republicans’ embrace of discrimination.

"I would run balls-to-the-wall on civil unions and poll the crap out of civil marriage and see if it’s doable," Goldman says. "It can be as important an issue to rally the base as anything you’ve got this year." Goldman says Democrats should emphasize that civil unions (or marriage) would encourage monogamy and responsibility, the kinds of things that Republicans claim to support. "You just ram it down their throat," he says, suggesting Democrats hit Republicans with buzz words such as "outrageous," "un-American," and "shame."

And though the usual take is that the Democrats must struggle to hold together their pro- and anti-marriage wings, the Republicans have had their own problems with gay and lesbian issues. Sean Cahill, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, points out that Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory was made possible in large part because President George H.W. Bush, in an attempt to appease the Republican base, allowed his unsuccessful challenger, Pat Buchanan, to deliver a prime-time address at the party’s national convention, in Houston. Buchanan gave his notoriously hate-filled "culture war" speech, attacking the women’s movement, gays and lesbians, and anyone else who failed to conform to his right-wing ideal. Middle America was justifiably appalled.

The current President Bush, Cahill notes, has tried to play it cute. Just recently, for instance, Bush recognized Marriage Protection Week, sponsored by anti-gay-rights organizations, and also sent a letter of congratulations to the heavily gay Metropolitan Community Churches on their 35th anniversary. On Tuesday, Bush was at it again, issuing a statement from London that he disagreed with the Massachusetts decision, but not specifying any particular action to address it.

Bush’s dilemma, Cahill says, is that he needs to appease the religious right without scaring moderate voters. "If Bush encourages those forces by saying good things about the federal marriage amendment, and has Karl Rove wink at the religious right, that could backfire on him," Cahill says. "If he overreaches in mobilizing that religious-right base, that alienates the voters he needs to win."

And what is a danger for Bush could be an opportunity for the Democrats.

"I’ve got two little kids now, which has profoundly changed how I feel about this issue," says Susan Tracy, a Boston-based business consultant who is a former Democratic state legislator and a lesbian. Tracy says she understands why Democrats are afraid of embracing civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, but adds they may be missing an opportunity as well.

"I think if we’ve learned a lesson in this campaign season and the last campaign season, it’s that people like McCain and Dean caught fire and catch fire because they are not cautious political people," Tracy says. "It’s a risky strategy, but I think you’d get credit for being a straight shooter."

Perhaps the most intractable problem in politics today is low voter turnout. And that suggests yet another opportunity for Democrats.

Consider the advice of David Tseng, executive director of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). A senior adviser on economic issues in the Clinton administration, Tseng helped draft PFLAG’s amicus curiae brief in the Lawrence case.

His recommendation to whoever wins the Democratic nomination: "Support civil marriage, unequivocally, without condition. That candidate, I think, would draw community members in droves to his or her candidacy."

It’s easy for Democrats to take gay and lesbian voters for granted. But what, Tseng asks, of those who aren’t energized enough to register and vote? He predicts that "tens of thousands" of new voters would turn out for a candidate who openly supported civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"Think what two or three percentage points could do in a closely divided country," Tseng says. "If you had someone who went to the convention and said, ‘I will lead, not follow, on this issue,’ there would be a roar across this country the likes of which we have never heard before."

And that, after all, is the best kind of wedge issue. It unites your supporters. It divides your opponents. It gives you a real chance of winning.

The Republicans figured that out a long time ago. Now, civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples give Democrats a chance to claim the wedge for themselves.

Will they have the wit — and the guts — to do it? Probably not. Yet if they did, they might find their support for equality to be not just a matter of principle, but a matter of political pragmatism as well.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a] Read his daily Media Log at

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Issue Date: November 21 -27, 2003
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