Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2004 / 2 Adar, 5764
John H. Fund
Marriage of Inconvenience: Why same-sex nuptials make Democrats nervous
The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot likes
to say that on the politics of gay rights,
the loser will be whichever side raises
the issue first.
For many years, Republicans came up
losers because media outlets portrayed
them as intolerant, as indeed many of
them were. The score evened last year
when a 4-3 majority of the
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
demanded the state recognize same-sex
marriage. Republicans probably nudged a
little ahead last week when San
Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom decided
to throw away the rule of law and
declare it was his duty to recognize
marriages between gay couples, despite
a 2000 voter initiative codifying the
traditional definition of marriage.
courts refuse to issue injunctions to stop
San Francisco from issuing marriage
licenses to same-sex couples, many
Democrats are running scared. In the
words of Peter Schrag, former editorial
page editor of the liberal Sacramento
Bee, they know Mr. Newsom has
committed an act of "monumental
Reading media reports of the 3,000-plus
gay couples who have taken out
marriage certificates in San Francisco
make the mayor's civil disobedience look
like a cross between a civil-rights
triumph and a love story. That's because
the vast majority of journalists support
same-sex marriage, including
right-of-center pundits such as David
Brooks, Andrew Sullivan and Jim
Pinkerton. But Democratic politicians
know better. California's Barbara Boxer,
one of the Senate's most liberal
members, startled her base last week
when she announced she opposed
changing state law to recognize same-sex marriage. A spokesman for the senator said
she believes the state's domestic partnership law provides gay couples with "full rights
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of Congress, says he
warned Mayor Newsom that his stunt would fail legally and would also force
more-mainstream politicians to support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex
marriage. He is aware there has been a backlash since the Massachusetts court
decision, and San Francisco's civil disobedience may accelerate that. A December poll
by CBS and the New York Times found that 61% of Americans opposed gay marriage,
up from 55% in July. Opposition to gay rights was the highest since the survey began
asking the question in 1992.
The poll found that blacks and Hispanics--core Democratic voting blocs--were
especially loath to embrace same-sex marriage. Jesse Jackson told a Harvard Law
School audience last week that he supports "equal protection under the law" for gays,
but he did not endorse full marriage rights and questioned the analogy between gay
rights and civil rights: "Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution
and did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote." He warned the
issue was treacherous territory for Democrats in 2004 because it was part of a
"Republican tactical strategy to distract from such issues as foreign policy and
Yet the GOP didn't start this fight. Mayor Newsom is a Democrat, and although three of
the four justices in the Massachusetts majority were appointed by Republican
governors, no one believes they were acting out of cynically partisan motives in
declaring a right to same-sex marriage.
Indeed, Democrats in California are angry that Mayor Newsom's stunt will distract
voters from other issues where they are on firmer ground. And they're right to worry,
because marriage appears to be a dividing line for many people between tolerance for
gays--which continues to grow--and official validation of the gay lifestyle.
Support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is surprisingly
uniform across demographic and regional categories. A Zogby poll last week found that
52% of voters in states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 backed such an
amendment. But so did 50% of voters in Al Gore states. A Newsweek poll this month
found that 36% of Democrats strongly supported a constitutional amendment.
In California, the ballot measure to declare marriage as a union between a man and a
woman won 61% of the vote in 2000, carrying 52 out of 58 counties--even as Al Gore
trounced George W. Bush in the state, 53% to 42%. Respect for the will of the voters
is one reason Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, generally sympathetic to gay rights, told a
convention of California Republicans on Friday night that the state will refuse to
recognize San Francisco's action. He demanded that San Francisco officials obey the
The liberal Mr. Schrag rang the alarm bell for Democrats in his column this week. "Just
when Bush's support and his poll standings are shrinking, here come San Francisco's
city-county sanctioned gay marriages--almost certain to be declared invalid
anyway--to rouse Bush's base," he wrote. "Bill Clinton learned painfully that wading into
the gay front of the culture wars in his first days in office is not a good way to begin.
. . . Couldn't Newsom have done his fellow Democrats a favor and waited a year before
adding fuel to the fire?"
Republicans still have to be careful about appearing, or being, intolerant and leaving
themselves open to charges of hypocrisy. David Boaz of the Cato Institute once wrote
a powerful piece in the New York Times chiding family-values conservatives for
criticizing gays while most social problems--abortion, divorce, latchkey kids,
out-of-wedlock births--result from misbehaving heterosexuals. He noted that articles
on homosexuality in conservative publications far outnumber those on, say divorce.
"Scapegoating gay men and lesbians may get conservatives some votes, but it is not
going to solve any of American families' real problems," he says.
Daniel Weintraub, a libertarian-leaning columnist at the Sacramento Bee, points to a
possible compromise. He would prefer the government get out of the marriage business
entirely, making all unions a private matter among couples and their faiths. "Our legal
system already has the tools to handle the contract implicit in the ceremony, and the
state needn't do much other than allow the courts to enforce those contracts like any
Gays are doing their cause no long-term good by pushing for official government
validation of their unions as marriages at a time when public opinion is hardening
against such a notion. Opponents of extending basic legal rights such as hospital
visitation and insurance benefits to gays are on the losing side of history and are being
sidetracked from more important moral questions.
Both sides would do well to recall Ronald Reagan, who courageously opposed a 1978
initiative in California that would have barred gays from teaching in public schools.
When a small group of gays met with him after his opposition led to the measure's
overwhelming defeat, he was asked his opinion of gay marriage. "Well, now," he told
them, "I would just warn you that if you get in bed with the government, you'll get
more than a good night's sleep."
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©2001, John H. Fund