Gay Marriage a Tricky Issue for Democrats

A generation hence, and possibly as soon as January 2005, the threat to
America's families posed by the dread specter of gay marriage will seem
as quaint and chimerical as hysteria about "race-mixing" or flouridated water.
(Or, for that matter, fear of backwoods Southerners inspired in suburban
moviegoers by films like "Deliverance.") All but congenital bigots will realize
that everybody needs love, that desire is felt like gravity, that people no more
choose to be gay than they choose left-handedness, and that homosexuality's
not catching. With understanding comes tolerance and compassion.

Unfortunately for Democrats, however, the next presidential election will be
contested in 2004. And despite brave words to the contrary from commentators
on the left, the issue puts the Democratic nominee in considerable peril.

Writing in The American Prospect, for example, Matthew Yglesias notes a
recent USA Today/ Gallup Poll showing that "just 48 percent of the public
believes gay marriages 'will change our society for the worse,'and 50 percent
feels the change would either be an improvement or have no effect."

Yglesias hopefully concludes that the "crucial middle held not by
gay bashers but by people who basically don't care." Since elections are
customarily won or lost in the middle, he thinks "the political dynamics of
gay rights may pose more problems for Republicans than for Democrats."
He reasons that the issue will spotlight the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons
and other panhandling Jeremiahs, thus reminding swing voters of everything
they don't like about the GOP.

With due respect, Yglesias is dreaming. First, in today's America, fear is an
easier sell than understanding; the committed trump the indifferent in electoral
contests almost every time. Secondly, as with race, people rarely confess
bigotry to strangers over the phone. Their real feelings emerge in the privacy
of the voting booth. Most important, as Democrats ought to have learned for
good in 2000, national polls mean little in the individual states where presidential
elections are contested.

And state by state, the gay marriage issue is potentially devastating to any
Democrat, particularly in the South and everywhere else west of the Hudson
and east of Reno where rural and small town values predominate. Vermont and
Massachusetts court decisions mandating an end to discrimination against gay
couples would help oppportunistic Republicans frame the election as elitist
judges and effete New Englanders versus good country people. The symbolism
could prove deadly.

Absent gay marriage, the right Democrat could certainly carry Arkansas.
Florida and West Virginia are also winnable. Based upon recent election
results, Virginia and Louisiana may be within reach, and possibly Georgia.
Democratic victories in two Southern states would make it almost impossible
for George W. Bush to win the 270 electoral votes needed to remain in office.

Losing them all, however, would likely finish the Democratic hopeful.
Assertions to the contrary by some party tacticians assume that a candidate
culturally unacceptable to Southern voters could somehow carry states like
Missouri and Ohio--unlikely at best.  Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland,
the Vietnam war hero smeared as unpatriotic during his losing re-election
campaign, sees what's coming. 2004, he told Salon, will be "about gay
marriage." "It'll be slime and defend, as it always is," he said. "And it will be
the ugliest political campaign, aboveboard and below board, in the history
of the country."

Conservative culture warriors are tooling up. The right-wing press is filled
with crackpot fantasies: mobsters marrying each other to avoid testifying,
fathers marrying sons to avoid estate taxes, etc. Catholic bishops and
cardinals have portrayed the Massachusetts decision as morally abhorrent,
hard to take given the church's sickening cover-up of pedophile priests.
Evangelical cleric Rev. Louis Sheldon, of the Traditional Values Coalition,
speaks of becoming "a resisting force...against those who would like to call
evil good"--language normally reserved for terrorists.

Not for nothing did President Bush's reaction to the Massachusetts ruling
stress that "marriage is a SACRED institution between a man and a woman."
[my emphasis] In reality, no Democratic presidential candidate favors gay
marriage as such; all back "civil unions" conveying state, not religious, approval.
Indeed, Americans aren't supposed to look to politicians to define the sacred.

Unfortunately, to millions of Southern evangelicals, marriage vs. civil unions
seems a distinction without a difference. They see Bush's theological effrontery
as common sense. If the GOP gets its way, across the entire region, the 2004
contest will resemble Bush's vicious 2000 South Carolina primary vs. John
McCain, with the president striking statesmanlike poses while his surrogates
do the dirty work: push-polling and whisper campaigns that'll all but turn the
Democratic ticket--assuming both candidates are men--into husband and wife.

There may be ways for Democrats to counter what's coming, but pretending
the threat isn't real won't work. Neither will simply sitting back and waiting
for Republicans to overplay their hand.

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