There was a time, not so long ago, when the prospect of legally sanctioned gay marriage playing a central role in presidential and congressional elections seemed about as remote as finding water on Mars. The idea was simply too radical. But times change. Between court rulings in Massachusetts and the seemingly endless eruption of brushfire rebellions (or blatant law-breaking, depending on your perspective) at city halls and county courthouses around the country, the same sex marriage debate is positioned to share top-billing with the economy, WMD, and the War on Terror not just this election year, but for probably a few more to come.
What's striking about this debate is how uncomfortable the overwhelming majority of politicians apparently are with the issue. While there are a few, like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome or (on the other side of the equation) Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo. and sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment) who are willing to come down four-square one way or the other, most seem like they'd rather things had remained in the closet.
President George Bush tap-danced around the subject a bit before his endorsement of an amendment to the Constitution that would define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.” Even then, the president's remarks were couched in the warm and fuzzy phraseology of compassionate conservatism as he pleaded for civility and understanding in the debate. Any serious opponent of gay marriage is likely to run into bad press coverage from the media, which may be why Bush was less than eager to engage the issue in the first place.
Democrat nominee-to-be John Kerry is, true to form, trying his best to straddle both sides—opposing gay marriage but also opposing the constitutional amendment to codify the prohibition. Kerry recognizes that, while popular opinion is for the most part opposed to the idea of gay marriage at this point in time, the nation's judiciary (with the U.S. Supreme Court being a huge question mark) is not. Leaving the question to the nation's judges is a safe way for somebody else to take the political heat.
But the bottom line of this equation is simple: For candidates—whether they are incumbents or challengers, elections are about winning and losing. Ever since taking the office in 2000, pundits have noted the parallels between the presidencies of the Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger, frequently focusing on George W.'s fear of following in his father's footsteps and failing to secure a second term.
Certainly the similarities between 2004 and 1992 (when Bush Sr. lost to Clinton) are striking: We've had military action in the Middle East against Iraq, an up-and-down economy, mounting deficits and a vice-president with popularity issues. Part of the success to their winning campaign (but let's also not forget Ross Perot's role ... ) was summed-up in James Carville's famous motto from the War Room: “It's the economy, stupid.” That is, Clinton's focus on pocketbook issues while downplaying some of the more left-wing cultural mores, was a winning combination.
Which may be why—for the 2004 election, anyway—the emergence of the same sex marriage debate may wind up being good news for Bush and his political advisors. It also makes the analogy between 2004 and 1988 much more appropriate.
In the summer of 1988, Vice President George Bush's prospects of succeeding Ronald Reagan as leader of the free world seemed pretty slim. Polling done shortly after the Democrat National Convention in June showed that party's nominee—Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis—with an insurmountable 17-point lead. Were the vice president to somehow accomplish the impossible and come from that far behind to win, well ... a feat like that would be the political equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of the hat.
But Bush actually managed to pull out something even better than a rabbit. He pulled out Willie Horton. As Governor, Dukakis had vetoed a bill ending a weekend prison furlough program that allowed prisoners—including murderers—out of jail for 48 hours of unsupervised liberty. After Horton tasted a couple of days R&R from his life sentence for murder, (compliments of the local hemorrhaging hearts) he didn't go back. Instead, Horton broke into a home and proceeded to beat and stab the male occupant who lived there. When the man's fiancée stopped by to visit, Horton raped her twice.
Lee Atwater, mastermind (some would say Machiavellian) behind the Bush political operation, later used the Horton case for one of the most hotly debated political ads of all time. In addition to painting Dukakis as a coddler of murderers and rapists, however, Atwater also attacked Dukakis on a number of cultural issues—the Pledge of Allegiance, flag burning and school prayer.
Fighting a “culture war” against Dukakis proved effective with a majority of voters. They didn't want a Massachusetts liberal who was soft on crime and against the Pledge of Allegiance in the White House and they didn't get one: Atwater's strategy worked and Bush staged one of the more surprising come-from-behind wins to become the country's 41st president.
Sixteen years later, Bush's son is now the nation's 43rd President and facing a tough campaign himself. National polling at times has shown him behind the likely Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. In addition to the deficit and a difficult foreign war, a political base that's unhappy with his spending proposals and immigration reforms doen't look to make the president's situation any easier. Even “W” was predicting that the race would be close.
Almost as if on cue, however, enter the Massachusetts State Supreme Court and Gavin Newsome, the Mayor of San Francisco. Between that court's ruling that gay marriage—not civil unions—were the only legally acceptable way to recognize a homosexual union and Newsome's green light to gay marriage at City Hall (which, closer to home, was also later OK'ed for a brief period of time by the Sandoval County Clerk), many in the nation were faced with a picture of gay America that was a little more unsettling and real than the cute, funny pop culture depictions of gays they might see on “Will and Grace” or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
After dancing around the issue a bit, President Bush announced his support for the Family Marriage Amendment, which would alter the Constitution and effectively prohibit same-sex marriage. For his part, Kerry (for the first time since achieving front-runner status) appeared on the defensive and is doing his best to refocus the debate on ground he finds more winnable, i.e., foreign policy and the economy.
Perhaps Kerry fears that White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove—who is to George W. what Lee Atwater was to his father—will “Dukakis” him. After all, Kerry has one of the more liberal voting records in Congress, is from Massachusetts and (fate is a comedian) served as lietunant governor under Dukakis.
If that's the case, given polling on the issue, Kerry's fear could be justified. A national survey by pollster Bill McInturff shows a statistical dead-heat between Bush and Kerry turning into a 15-point lead for Bush when the fight over the definition of marriage becomes a central question.
In other words, it looks like Willy Horton's back. Only this time, he's gay and he wants to marry your son. All of which will make for an interesting election, if nothing else. But don't expect the debate to end this year—it's not going away anytime soon.