Thursday, June 08, 2006

Why the "ring bearers for gay marriage" acted the way they did

Greetings from the Philadelphia airport, where I am soon bound for Las Vegas, site of the first-ever national convention of liberal bloggers, and the numerous Democratic politicians who will trail in their wake. Bloggers and there's a combo: images of geeks in bathrobes bumping into one-armed bandits, with Sinatra singing "I got the world on a string." But seriously, folks. I anticipate there will be blogworthy items, and a long analysis about the blogosphere's potential impact on Democratic politics is planned for the Monday newspaper. Meanwhile, here's what came off the keyboard in the lounge this morning: Gay marriage.

Which is to say, so much for the gay marriage issue. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Republican quest for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning the concept – a symbolic gesture aimed at pleasing the party’s social and religious conservatives – was shelved yesterday on the Senate floor. Perhaps the only surprise was how easy it was to defeat.

By their voting behavior, Senate Republicans demonstrated that gay marriage remains a highly divisive topic within the party; that it pits moderates against conservatives; that it divides Republicans along geographic lines; and that, bottom line, a notable number of senators in President Bush’s own party don’t want anything to do with the issue.

Some of those senators see the issue as a distraction from the stuff that is really important (witness John McCain’s remark in the New York Times yesterday about how he was anxious to get to the defense authorization bill). Some see the issue as a turnoff for the folks back home (more on that below). And some see the constitutional amendment route as a betrayal of conservative small-government principles (more on that below).

The vote yesterday was not even on the bill’s merits, or lack thereof. It never got that far. The showdown was only about whether to move toward a vote on the merits. Sixty votes were needed to go forward – presumably, all 55 Republicans and five helpful Democrats. But only 49 senators voted that way. Most importantly, seven Republicans broke with their party and said, in effect, let’s quit talking about this. And that meant the issue was DOA in 2006.

It’s worth noting that, with the exception of McCain of Arizona, the Republican dissidents all hailed from the Northeast: Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Judd Gregg and John Sununu (New Hampshire), Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (Maine), and Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island). That is no accident. The northeastern brand of Republican does not share the religious right’s passion for using the federal government to regulate morality.

As I’ve twice noted recently in print columns (here and here), some GOP strategists are concerned that a crusade for a gay marriage amendment could further alienate moderate Republican and independent voters in the northeastern suburbs, where a number of moderate Republican congressmen are fighting for survival in November.

Among those increasingly disapproving voters, Bush, who voiced support this week for a gay marriage amendment, is already viewed as too close to the religious right. A new poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports that support for Bush among moderate/liberal Republicans has dropped by 25 points since December 2004, and by 19 points among independents. In the Northeast, among all voters, Bush’s approval rating now stands at 27 percent.

And while 58 percent of Americans believe gay marriage should be illegal – this, according to an ABC News poll on Tuesday – only 42 percent believe that the Constitution should be amended to ban it. The gap in those percentages is mainly attributable to moderates and independents who view such a move as too drastic. (The document hasn’t been amended since 1992, on an issue of compensation for members of Congress; the previous instance was back in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18.)

Some of the dissident Republicans had their own take on why a constitutional amendment was inappropriate; they saw that option as a betrayal of party principles – namely, the traditional GOP notion that the feds should never tread on policies best left to the states. McCain and Sununu have made this argument, which clashes with the religious right’s more new-fangled notion of using Washington to police morality (witness last year’s famed attempt by Congress to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case).

Perhaps the best articulation for the states’ rights argument was offered the other night on MSNBC by Joe Scarborough, the conservative ex-congressman from Florida: “You can be for or against gay marriage, (but) it just seems to me that Republicans are going to have to decide once and for all whether they believe in states’ rights or not, because…the same conservatives who are saying we need this national preemption…are some of the same Republicans that, when it comes to abortion, are saying ‘Let the states decide what to do on the issue on abortion.’ You can’t have it both ways…I believe that the federal government should mind its own business.”

All the factors cited above help to explain why the dissident Republican senators acted as they did yesterday, although that won’t assuage the anger of the religious right, which feels betrayed. Last night, religious right leader Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council circulated an email charging that the Dissident Seven should now consider themselves to be “ring bearers for gay marriage.” He also charged that the will of the people is being stymied by “48 United States senators.” (Memo to Perkins: That’s democracy, as decreed by the founding fathers. They intended the U.S. Senate to be the place where public passions are cooled. George Washington essentially said that to Thomas Jefferson.)

No matter. Ban supporters insist they are undeterred, despite their decisive loss. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said that what happened yesterday was actually a step toward ultimate victory. He said, “We’re building votes,” which is actually a creative inversion of simple math, given the fact that, in 2004, when Senate Republicans last tried and failed to enact a ban, the supporters actually had one more vote (50) than they have now (49).

The Senate floor debate yesterday did have its theatrical moments – such as when Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma displayed a huge photo of his brood and proudly declared that “in the recorded history” of his family, they had never suffered “any kind of homosexual relationship” – but more value-based entertainment is still on tap:

Passage in Washington is already dead this year, but that won’t stop the House Republicans. In July, they plan to resurrect the issue anyway. Why would they bother? The answer was revealed on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC program.

Scarborough, speaking to Republican strategist Jack Burkman: “Jack, it sure smells like political pandering to me. Is that what the president is doing?”
Burkman: “Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with pandering, if it’s the right thing to do, Joe.”