As the Republicans over the last few decades unfurled the Big Tent, the Democrats rolled theirs up. This explains why Republicans are led by ambivalent candidates and Democrats are led by doctrinaire ones. A party either takes its platform seriously or it doesn’t. The Democrats take theirs seriously; the Republicans just don’t.
The lowest-common-denominator approach Republicans accepted with the Big Tent concept meant the weakest views in the party would ultimately define it. Maybe an ad hoc goal or two can provide momentary GOP unity, but that’s about it. Robert Dole once famously said that he didn’t even bother to read the platform. Could one imagine a Democratic presidential nominee making such a declaration — saying in effect that “he doesn’t take liberalism very seriously”?
The Democrats, wisely from a political point of view, insisted on the core tenets of their platform. While the Republicans were skittish whenever the media raised the specter of “litmus tests,” the Democrats’ attitude was: Why not?
The Democrats, consequently, enter the 2008 race with an ideologically impeccable liberal nominee as rank-and-file Republicans trot sluggishly behind a heterodox nominee who is liable to fire on them at any moment. As the Democratic identity strengthens, Republicans admit their “brand is in the trash can,” said Congressman Tom Davis recently. “If we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf.”
And that’s the problem: Mush, not real substance, is all that’s on offer in the Big Tent. Even the California Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage, which supposedly represents a great political opportunity for Republicans, underscores the GOP’s identity problem: the ruling’s author, Justice Ron George, is a liberal Republican, as is the governor who promises to back it.
Here, too, we see the political sense of the Democrats. They let Gray Davis hang during the recall — a few Dianne Feinstein supporters publicly backed the recall — because at least some of them figured that Arnold Schwarzenegger would do more to advance the liberal agenda than Davis ever could. Had Davis tried any of Schwarzenegger’s initiatives, such as his successful three-billion-dollar cloning initiative, they would have gone nowhere.
Now pro-gay-marriage liberals in the state can count on the protection of a Republican governor who has said of the impending initiative drive to ban it, “I will always be there to fight against that — because it should never happen.”
Meanwhile, John McCain’s stance on this issue is about as galvanizing as his opposition to “amnesty.” What exactly is the major difference between his position and Obama’s? They both technically oppose gay marriage, and they both support the right of states to enact gay marriage. Perhaps the only difference in the end will be that McCain also supports the right of states to reject it (though presumably Obama, if only for political reasons, holds this view at the moment too).
ON SUCH SLENDER reeds hangs the GOP’s agenda. Commentators predict a coming “culture war” between the Democrats and Republicans on this issue. I doubt it. A culture war presupposes two fighting sides. Only the Democrats are fighting on this one, and prominent Republicans long ago surrendered one of the principles upon which opposition to gay marriage rests: it is bad for children.
Democrats are full of passionate certainty, but Republicans grow ever more vague, opposing gay marriage merely on democratic, not moral, grounds. The media still clings to the culture-war model, but it looks more and more anachronistic.
Ruth Marcus, after Dick Cheney’s daughter announced her pregnancy in 2006, wrote that she wished it had happened during the 2004 election cycle so that it could have “illustrated the clanging disconnect between the Republican Party’s outmoded intolerance and the benign reality of gay families today.” But what was she talking about? If anything, Republicans would have praised Ms. Cheney, as President Bush himself did in a People magazine interview, saying she would be a “loving soul” to her child.
By adopting an at best agnostic view of all the issues connected to homosexuality and accepting gay adoption, Republicans helped lay the groundwork for the rise of gay marriage. True, Bush benefited from the issue in 2004, but that was due not so much to his fervor as Kerry’s extremism and inept political instincts: Bill Clinton had reportedly advised him to not only oppose gay marriage but support the initiatives in states like Ohio to ban it; Kerry refused.
Whatever Big Tent banner McCain raises to lead conservatives to the polls on gay marriage is likely to be shredded and flailing and Obama is no John Kerry.
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