With Values Like These . . .
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page A19
The Senate Republicans still can't pass a budget, and the 26 judicial nominees on whom both parties have signed off remain unconfirmed. But as the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House see it, the chief duty of Congress is to frighten the religious right to the polls in November. And so we have the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, which the Senate is to vote on today.
It won't pass or come anywhere close. Like all constitutional amendments, the measure requires a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress. The Senate, as all its members know full well, is no more likely to come up with 67 votes for this bit of campaign-year demagoguery than it is to enact workers' and peasants' soviets. It's not just liberals but also centrists and conservatives (Lynne Cheney among them) who oppose placing a ban on gay marriage and possibly civil unions in the Constitution. But then, the amendment is being offered today simply because it will help the scare campaign hasten more right-wing evangelicals to the polls this fall. For, as the right tells the tale, what gay-marriage advocates are seeking is not simply the right to have the state sanction such marriages but the right to close down churches that don't. According to Gary Bauer, "churches will be pressured to either abandon the Scriptures or lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to 'marry' homosexuals.' " James Dobson's Focus on the Family cautions that "if homosexual activists succeed in redefining traditional marriage, the next step is making it a crime to speak God's truth about homosexuality."
In other words, the legalization of gay marriage in some states will somehow mysteriously repeal the First Amendment's protection of religious practice and of speech. This is paranoid fantasy or a big lie -- or, motivation always being somewhat unknowable, both. The same First Amendment that protects Gary Bauer protects Tony Kushner; no gay-marriage advocate I know of has ever called for restricting the freedom of speech from the pulpit.
But the goal here is to stoke fears, and the marriage amendment is just one of many tools in that shed. Already, right-wing activists have placed initiatives banning gay marriage on the November ballot in nine states -- Michigan and Oregon and other crucial swingers among them. In Ohio and several other states, efforts to qualify such measures are still underway. The object, of course, is to leave no right-wing evangelical behind in the Bush-Cheney get-out-the-vote drive.
The zeal and single-mindedness with which the Bush campaign is pursuing this goal is best understood as a consequence of Bush's failure to even win, or much less hold, more moderate voters. Bush has been consistently trailing John Kerry among independent voters, and his level of support among his fellow Republicans has declined from the mid 90s to the low 80s. That's partly a function of the failure of the war in Iraq. It's also a consequence of the president's screwing up his two chief outreach-to-the-middle legislative vehicles. Bush subverted his No Child Left Behind initiative by failing to fund it. He botched his Medicare reform act by turning it chiefly into a giveaway to drug companies at the expense of American seniors.
Clearly, Karl Rove had envisioned that these initiatives could build support for Bush in the center of the electorate, but they failed because they ran counter to Bush's political DNA. This is not a president who has it in him to spend money on improving the education of poor children or to side with consumers over such mega-donors as the drug industry. In a similar vein, the administration's on-again, off-again attempt to increase its support among Latino voters by backing a pseudo-immigration reform that offered residency but not citizenship to the immigrant workers it would cover hasn't yielded any increase in its Latino backing, either.
So the GOP outreach strategy for November focuses on conservative churchgoers far more than anyone else. The Republican National Convention will showcase the party's otherwise marginalized moderates -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain -- for the great moderate audience. But I doubt the convention planners really believe that this late in the game they can fool anybody. The Republicans' campaign is all about scapegoating John Kerry for the ills of modernity. It's about exploiting homophobia, provincialism and cultural insecurity. Or, as they put it, values.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company