Straight Politics

Conservatives don't like gay marriages, but they love "healthy marriages."

Thu Jan. 15, 2004 4:00 AM EST

George W. Bush disappointed conservatives in November when, after Massachussets' highest court decided in favor of gay marriage, the president expressed only strong disapproval, as opposed to, say, implacable rage. And he's further vexed them by declining -- so far -- to push hard for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. So he needs, going into an election season, to burnish his credentials with the right. Hence his "healthy marriages" initiative.

Bush is floating the idea of pouring at least $1.5 billion into voluntary training programs to help low-income (straight) people get -- and stay -- married. Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families, told the New York Times that marriage is a social good.

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"Marriage programs do work. On average, children raised by their own parents in healthy, stable married families enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor."

Horn notes that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman -- prevents same-sex couples from accessing the program's services. The initiative was co-written by conservative groups seeking to strengthen the traditional legal definition of marriage against expansions to include same-sex marriage.

One presidential advisor told the Times that the initiative would help appease conservatives. "This is a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base."

Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative commentator who strongly supports gay marriage rights, doesn't have a problem with Bush promoting marriage counseling classes per se, but thinks excluding gays is hypocritical.

"Marriage matters. And government has some responsibility to help foster it. But, of course, it begs the question. If marriage is so good for straights, why is the government so intent on preventing it for gays? Don't gay men, in particular, face all sorts of problems and issues that the responsibility of marriage helps ameliorate? And then you realize: for this administration, gay and lesbian citizens are regarded as beneath responsibility. There is no need for a social policy toward them, since they have no human needs or aspirations. If gays try to build responsible lives, and families, the important thing is not to help or encourage or reach out to them, but to prevent their relationships at all costs and in any way possible - even if we have to amend the constitution to keep them excluded from families and society. Above all: don't ever mention them in public. It might lead to some sort of social policy that could help them. They can pay taxes, but the government has no interest in helping them construct relationships that last. That's roughly it, isn't it?"

Bush and the GOP, Sullivan says, have a lot to lose by opposing gay marriage rights too strenously, and the latest initiative might be a way for the administration to "protect" the traditional definition of marriage short of pushing for a full-blown amendment, something that could split Republicans. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last December, he presents a compelling argument that tensions in the Republican party over gay marriage could widen if the administration focuses on the issue. His argument is that while many Americans don't support marriage for gays, many people, even conservatives, think a constitutional amending forbidding the practice is a bad idea. Advocating the amendment could hurt the GOP while actually giving a boost to the Dems.

"On the Democratic side, there are no such rifts. Every single candidate opposes the Constitutional Amendment. And most leading candidates oppose gay marriage, but endorse civil unions. So raising the amendment issue actually divides Republicans, while uniting Democrats. And the Democrat position is more appealing to most of the country, which is not anti-gay, has few qualms about civil unions, but still gets queasy about full marriage rights.

If the president were to endorse the amendment, the Republican splits would widen. It would make the position of gay Republicans essentially untenable and Bush would lose almost all the million gay votes he won in 2000. The Republican Unity Coalition, founded to make sexual orientation a non-issue in the GOP, would fold. The Log Cabin Republicans would refuse to endorse the president. And such a position would be an enormous gift to the Democrats, as gay money, enthusiasm and anger would rally behind their candidate. The Amendment would do to the gay community what Proposition 187 did to Latinos in California: alienate them from the GOP for a generation. And it would send a signal to other minorities: that the Republicans, at heart, are the party of exclusion, not inclusion."

Gays will continue to fight their battles in the courts and, if Sullivan's thesis is right, maybe the administration's legal assault against gay Americans won't go any further than promoting conflict-resolution classes for low-income straight couples. And if it does go further, it may be at George Bush's electoral peril.