Political Hay

Breaking the Silence

On Connecticut's gay marriage ruling, McCain must speak now or forever hold his peace.

By 10.15.08

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The Connecticut Supreme Court redefined marriage last week, and nobody seemed to notice. Including John McCain.

That’s understandable given the brouhaha over the economic End of Days, an election turning swiftly sour for the GOP, and, of course, Sarah Palin’s glasses. But it’s a big issue for social conservatives, who have been fighting for state-level marriage amendments since 2004 (with 27 successes so far). Such voters should have an ally in the Republican nominee. They don’t.

That’s an all-too-familiar refrain in the 2008 election cycle. No one is surprised at Barack Obama’s position on marriage redefinition. It’s the traditional line that top brass in the Democratic Party have taken since Massachusetts legalized homosexual marriage in 2004: yes to civil unions, no to marriage. Joe Biden reiterated it earlier this month in the vice presidential debate. Any other position would be political suicide.

McCain, on the other hand, throws some chicken bones to social conservatives on the marriage issue, albeit from scrawny fowl. He says states should have the right to define marriage in their constitutions. Like Obama, he says marriage is a heterosexual institution. And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, a woman who supported Alaska’s marriage amendment.

But McCain is far from a champion of traditional marriage, and his coyness on the issue was illustrated yet again over the weekend as his campaign remained silent on the Connecticut decision.

The Arizona senator is well known for his dislike of social issues, but he has yet to come to terms with their importance to the GOP base. It wouldn’t take much to reassure values voters that he would represent their concerns in the Oval Office. McCain hasn’t made that effort.

His silence is only reinforcing what many social conservatives already believe: as a matter of practical policy, McCain’s advocacy for marriage as president would be nil, with the possible exception of a Supreme Court appointment with an originalist jurisprudence. Obama could do far more damage to the traditional definition of marriage, especially with a liberal Congress, but McCain is at best a neutral force on the issue and probably a negative (his joining with Obama in voting against a federal marriage amendment is a prime example).

That gives social conservatives a reason to vote against Obama but not for McCain. Hence, a deflated base that is contributing to McCain’s slippage in the polls, even in Republican strongholds like Virginia and North Carolina.

The moment news of the Connecticut decision hit the wire, McCain should have issued a press release condemning the activist court and restating his support for state-level amendments. Instead, he was AWOL.

What’s baffling about McCain’s silence is that he has nothing to lose, politically, by denouncing the ruling of an activist state court. That’s a bread-and-butter move of all Republican politicians, even liberals like Rudy Giuliani. A majority of Americans dislike a judiciary that legislates from the bench. Conservative and center-right voters cozy-up to candidates who are willing to take on over-reaching courts. McCain let the opportunity pass without a murmur.

That’s been his practice throughout the campaign (with his support of California’s Proposition 8
one exception). McCain dislikes social issues. Granted. But he’s done very little overall to step out of his comfort zone and shepherd this important segment of the GOP base into his camp.

It’s not that hard to extend an olive branch and assure social conservatives that their values would be upheld in a McCain administration. President Bush made the pledge and backed up his rhetoric with action, even if his presidency was a disaster in other respects. The result: two terms in office, the last propelled largely by values voters.

McCain hasn’t learned that lesson yet. He could end up learning it the hard way in November.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.