Gay marriage issue just might backfire on GOP

March 04, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I understand the compulsion to "energize the base," but couldn't Republicans have found something a little less toxic than this brew of Gaytorade?

When President Bush came out in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he was stirring up a cocktail to keep the cultural warriors in the party. It's assumed that this elixir will give them a sugar-high all the way to the election.

But Anybody-But-Bush Democrats have greeted the infusion of this issue into the campaign with all the gusto reserved for the entrance of Ralph Nader. They could live without it.

There's no doubt that the Democratic candidates, especially John Kerry, would have been happier if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hadn't ruled until, say, late November. They would have been better off if the San Francisco mayor, a Catholic heterosexual who ran as the conservative candidate and who contributed $500 to the Bush 2000 campaign, hadn't suddenly gotten marriage on his mind.

But we've all gotten into the habit of assuming the cultural warriors on the right are the winners. Who says the constitutional ban is a Bush boon? Who says the "energized right" might not look like the "hyperactive righteous" by November?

First, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, the positions of the candidates aren't all that different. Mr. Bush opposes same-sex marriage, but he has left room for the states to expand partnership rights. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards are both personally opposed to gay marriage but actively favor marriage-in-everything-but-name.

The constitutional amendment is an attempt to draw a dividing line through the common ground. After all, a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage but also - depending on how you ask the question - oppose an amendment banning it. That majority includes many conservatives.

The hard-core culture warriors, the same folks who refused to fiddle with the Constitution "merely" to extend equal rights to women, now want to amend it to deny rights to homosexuals. But there are traditional Republicans, averse to government intrusion, saying "not so fast."

Let's remember that conservatives as well as liberals have gay people in their neighborhoods, workplaces, PTAs and families. I am uncomfortable with the Web sites asking Mary Cheney to come out against her dad the vice president. But a constitutional ban on a daughter's wedding ought to make the dad uncomfortable too.

Americans largely want to protect marriage, but they also want to protect individual rights. In this election, the side that gets to frame the issue may win, or at least defuse the debate.

So what happens when the president talks about protecting the sanctity of marriage with a constitutional ban? What happens if and when the Democratic opponent pushes the debate back to the turf of rights?

The president will have to explain which of the rights that accrue to straight couples he would deny gay couples. Would he deny them the right to visit their partner in a hospital? The right to a partner's health insurance? The right to sponsor a loved one for immigration? The right to Social Security survivor benefits, automatic inheritance, family and medical leave?

Which marital rights would be at risk or remain at risk under a federal ban? An appeals court in Florida recently denied a gay couple the right to adopt the HIV-positive child they've cared for since infancy. Brother Jeb agreed. Would Brother George?

Granted, both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards have tortured arguments to explain their stance for marriage-in-everything-but-name. When asked by Dan Rather in Sunday's debate, "What's wrong with gay marriage?" Mr. Kerry took a quick sidestep. He has dug a deep hole in his argument by favoring a state ban while opposing a federal ban. Say what, John?

But how will the president explain his desire to add "sanctity" to the secular Constitution? To codify the denial of rights in the national sacrament?

James Carville said he was opposed to gay marriage until he realized he didn't have to have one. The Onion, bless its online soul, ran a satire reporting that the Massachusetts court ruled "in favor of full, equal and mandatory gay marriages," assigning partners randomly to everyone.

As you can tell, I don't hear the alarm bells in the wedding bells. We are watching attitudes change, one generation replacing another, in the direction of full acceptance of gay Americans. We're not there yet. But this time it's the conservatives pushing the most radical idea: a constitutional freeze on social change.

In 2004, the cocktail meant to energize the base may yet prove too acidic for the popular taste buds.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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