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Marriage on the Rocks

(The GOP needs counseling) 

By From the February 2004 issue

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SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES asked officials at the White House last year to issue a proclamation endorsing "Marriage Protection Week." The White House initially refused, they say. Officials worried that the proclamation might lead to unfavorable PR for the president. Its squeamishness over such an innocuous gesture stunned social conservatives. They had to bring pressure from some of their most powerful members to bear on the White House before it finally issued the proclamation. "Our leaders had to call the White House and say, 'You won't even do this?" says a Washington, D.C. activist. The White House bitterly resented the lobbying. A prominent White House official angrily called one activist and said, "You will get your proclamation," and then hung up.

The incident leaves social conservatives concerned that the White House will show similar ambivalence about a constitutional amendment to protect marriage. They say that White House officials would prefer if President Bush simply punted on the issue.

“White House officials will spend political capital on issues like the Medicare entitlement bill," says one. "But they won't spend political capital on protecting marriage." This social conservative fears that if the White House does support a marriage amendment in 2004 it will do so cynically, without bothering to fight for it. "The White House will probably support the amendment, knowing that it will fail, and then go to the base and say cynically, 'Look, we tried," he says.

Asked if the White House would support a constitutional marriage amendment with the same intensity it pushed the Medicare prescription drug bill, a prominent operative who works closely with the White House responded to TAS: "You mean, the anti-gay amendment?" A telling reply. Evidently some at the White House equate support for traditional marriage with homophobia. Pressed further, the operative's final answer was, "I don't know." Not enough polling has been done on the issue yet, he said.

On Capitol Hill Republican support for a marriage amendment isn't as flaky. But deep division and confusion still exist on the issue. A Capitol Hill insider present at meetings amongst House and Senate Republicans on the marriage amendment describes the mood as one of "stunned confusion." Strategy sessions about the marriage amendment are "a total mess," with Republicans going in all directions at once. There are disagreements on everything from the need for an amendment to the wording of it. A White House draft of a marriage amendment circulating in December shocked social conservatives in that it "almost invites the states to pass civil unions," as one put it.

EVEN A TOOTHLESS MARRIAGE AMENDMENT—One that bans homosexual marriage but would permit de facto homosexual marriage in the form of civil unions—isn't guaranteed to pass through a controversy- averse Republican Senate. Activists say Republican senators are either "clueless" or "treacherous"(some Republican senators with ties to homosexual groups are showing up at the meetings) on the amendment. "I was up on Capitol Hill and met with a bunch of senators. None of them appeared to have read or been briefed on the implications of the Supreme Court Lawrence decision," says a leading activist. "Republicans are at best unserious and often defeatist when it comes to debating anything that is central to the culture war."

Democrats appear ready to oppose an amendment. But homosexual marriage leaves them deeply skittish too. The issue has produced ironic inertia all around: most Democrats are too afraid of public opinion to support homosexual marriage; many Republicans are too afraid of public opinion to oppose it.

Judicial activists, meanwhile, are not as bashful. As Republicans dither over whether to advance a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, courts are dismantling it. The Massachusetts Supreme Court last year discovered a right to homosexual marriage in the Massachusetts constitution that John Adams apparently missed.

Other state courts will undoubtedly follow. And how much longer before the U.S. Supreme Court invents a right to homosexual marriage as well? Its reasoning in the Lawrence decision lends itself to one, warns Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Discount the Supreme Court's claim that the Lawrence decision won't lead to homosexual marriage, he says.

The "Court says that the present case 'does not involve' whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter," Scalia wrote in his dissent from the majority opinion in Lawrence. "Do not believe it. This case 'does not involve' the issue of homosexual marriage only if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this Court."

The urgency of a constitutional amendment to prevent judicial activists from imposing homosexual marriage on the states is therefore great. As columnist Robert Novak writes, "Without a constitutional amendment, gay marriage will become part of the fabric of American life."

Yet Republicans are dragging their feet. The Republican position in many quarters is indistinguishable from the Democratic one: a vague opposition to homosexual marriage joined to a growing acceptance of homosexual civil unions. In some cases Republicans are actually to the ideological left of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, none of whom are heedless enough of public opinion to support homosexual marriage. David Brooks, the New York Times's designated conservative columnist, urged Republicans in a column last year to endorse homosexual marriage. "We shouldn't just allow gay marriage," he writes. "We should insist on gay marriages' The column revealed the speed with which the traditional Republican position on homosexual issues was eroding. (Other prominent Republican writers, such as George Will, while not explicitly supporting homosexual marriage, signaled in their columns that it wouldn't bother them too deeply if states experimented with it.)

If the marriage amendment does not get off the ground, it won't be due to a lack of Republican strategy. It will be due to a lack of Republican conviction. The party, once a reliable defender of traditional marriage, has grown agnostic about it. Not a majority of Republican officeholders, perhaps, but a significant enough number to derail a marriage amendment.

The problem isn't just that Republicans lack the courage of their convictions; increasingly, the problem is that they don't have any conservative convictions. As the debate on issues from Medicare to marriage moves to the left, Republicans tend to move with it. This year's Republican position on any given issue often ends up looking like last year's Democratic one. Avoiding the appearance of "homophobia" now appears to be a more urgent priority for many Republicans than defending traditional family values. "Our side has internalized the argument of our opponents," says a Republican activist. "This would be shocking to most Republican voters."

Most Republican rank-and-filers still oppose homosexual marriage and homosexual civil unions. So do a majority of Americans. After the Lawrence decision support among Americans for same-sex civil unions dropped from 49 percent to 40 percent, according to Gallup pollsters. Support for homosexuality as an "acceptable lifestyle" dropped to 46 percent. Even support for the legalization of homosexual behavior dipped below 50 percent.

In late December, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, the numbers continued to drop. The New York Times /CBS News poll found that only 41 percent of Americans supported the legalization of homosexual behavior. It also found that Americans by a 61-34 margin disapproved of homosexual marriage. And by a 54-39 margin they opposed homosexual civil unions in the December poll.

THE REPUBLICANS' FAILURE of nerve on homosexual marriage is even more striking in light of these numbers. Social conservatives aren't asking the White House and the Republican Congress to defy public opinion on homosexual marriage. They are asking them to follow it. 

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.