Gay Gamble

Conservatives think a vote on gay marriage will help them at the polls. They're wrong.

| Fri Jul. 9, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

Next Monday, Senate Republicans are planning to fire up a long-awaited floor debate on the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), that infamous constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage once and for all.

The amendment itself has scant chance of ever passing the Senate -- it needs 67 votes to stay alive, and an informal head count suggests that at least 40 Senators will oppose the measure. That, of course, is not the issue. Republicans are hoping to force prominent Senate Democrats -- especially John Kerry, John Edwards, and Tom Daschle -- to take a public stand on a divisive issue. If these politicians oppose the amendment, the thinking goes, they will appear out of touch with mainstream swing voters. As many observers have noted, the political ramifications are endless:

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"The goal is to put Democrats in a tough position," said Executive Director David Noble of the Stonewall Democrats, a gay rights advocacy organization. "This is a strategy. [Bush strategist] Karl Rove wants gay people who might not be 100 percent enthusiastic about John Kerry to stay home."

Indeed, the move reeks of cynicism. But who, exactly, is in the tough position here? Are Republicans really correct in their political calculations? Evidence suggests not.

Looking carefully at poll data, it seems that public opinion on the FMA hinges almost entirely on how the debate is framed. A February CBS poll revealed that a formidable 59 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment that would "allow marriage only between a man and a woman." But when asked to weigh in on an amendment that would "outlaw marriages between people of the same sex," support dwindled to 51 percent. Notice how a subtle change in wording can change popular opinion. And there's more: a March poll conducted by the Annenberg Center showed that only 41 percent of Americans favor an amendment saying that "no state can allow two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other." When voters start thinking about states' rights and discrimination, suddenly the FMA doesn't sound like such a hot idea.

This hardly bodes well for supporters of the amendment. Highly vocal Republicans, like John McCain, have clearly stated that the marriage issue should be left for the states to decide. Incidentally, this was the position taken by Dick Cheney (who has a gay daughter) in 2000, and Democrats like Kerry have taken every opportunity to call attention to this fact. So states' rights will be a huge part of the debate. And let's not discount the emotional effect of those touching pictures of middle-aged women getting married in San Francisco and Massachusetts. All of the sudden, gay marriage might not look so threatening, and a constitutional amendment might seem a lot more discriminatory than it once did - making it harder for conservatives to put their stance in a positive light.

It is possible that Republicans are focusing not on winning a majority but simply on riling up their core supporters. Karl Rove has made no secret of his desire to bring out millions of new evangelical voters in 2004. Forcing a debate over gay marriage might energize the base. Then again, it might not. Ever since the Massachusetts court ruling, the expected evangelical mass outrage has barely emerged, as the Washington Post recently reported:

"As much as evangelicals and other Christians are bothered by gay marriage, it may not be their top priority. Like everybody else, they worry about Iraq and the economy," [said John C. Green, a professor at Akron University who studies evangelicals and politics]…

Marvin Olasky, editor of World, the largest evangelical newsmagazine, said he is not sure that his 135,000 subscribers want to read much about it, either. "We've run three Iraq covers in a row," he said. "We've had some coverage of [same-sex marriage], but it's not our foremost concern."

From the looks of things, Democrats can easily take the high road and call the FMA an unnecessary diversion from Iraq, the economy, health care, and other more important issues.

The prospect for a Republican political victory hardly looks much better on the state and local level. Republicans are hoping that a vote on gay marriage will scuttle Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who is running a tight re-election race in South Dakota and has promised to oppose the amendment. Such hopes, however, are misguided. As The Advocate recently noted, no one in South Dakota seems to care. Daschle campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer has said that, on the campaign trail, the issue "didn't come up once." Also keep in mind that last month, Democrat Stephanie Herseth won South Dakota's at-large congressional seat, even after coming out in favor of civil unions and straddling the marriage amendment question.

In fact, as far as the Senate races are concerned, the FMA could prove more harmful to Republicans. Daschle is the only Democratic incumbent in real danger of losing his seat this fall, whereas Republicans have three Senators facing tight races: Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and Christopher "Kit" Bond in Missouri. It's far from obvious that a debate over gay marriage will help any of these incumbents. In Alaska, a gay marriage amendment sharply split the electorate back in 1998. Murkowski would no doubt prefer to avoid further controversy among voters who already resent her for being appointed to the Senate by her father. Likewise, Missouri is facing a bitter battle over a marriage amendment in August, and a highly charged atmosphere will put unwanted pressure on Kit Bond, who was hoping to cruise quietly to reelection.

But perhaps no one is in a more difficult position than Arlen Specter. The moderate Pennsylvanian has taken pains to avoid speaking out on the FMA, though his record suggests he will oppose it. Specter is deeply unpopular among the state's social conservatives, who backed the ultra-rightwing Pat Toomey in the primary. A vote against the FMA will only further incur their wrath. On the other hand, if Specter endorses the amendment, he risks alienating the moderate urban voters who have kept him in office for fourteen years. It doesn't get more precarious than this.

Democrats may well know how strong a hand they have. On Thursday, Roll Call reported that the party may allow an up-or-down vote on the amendment:

Democrats who advocate this course said forcing a procedural vote would provide an inaccurate sense of support for the measure. Many GOP Senators who would be tempted to vote against the amendment itself, they say, might support the Republican leadership’s right to proceed to the bill, which would become the only vote of record on the issue this year.

Indeed, rather than tiptoe around the bill with cloture votes and procedural votes and votes to end or prolong the debate, the Democrats should go ahead and call the GOP's bluff. All those who want to ban gay marriage, say 'aye' -- and be prepared to pay dearly for it.

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