Distracter in Chief

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

What uncharted realm lies beyond brazen cynicism? A wasteland of utter shamelessness, perhaps? A vast Sahara of desperation, where principle goes to die? Someday George W. Bush and the Republican right will be able to tell us all about this barren terra incognita, assuming they ever find their way home.

The Decider's decision to whip up a phony crisis over same-sex marriage -- Values under attack! Run for your lives! -- is such a transparent ploy that even conservatives are scratching their heads, wondering if this is the best Karl Rove could come up with. Bush might as well open his next presidential address by giving himself a new title: The Distracter.

Let's check in on what's happening in the real world:

Iraq has become a charnel house for the victims of escalating sectarian slaughter. On Saturday, a car bomb killed 28 people in Shiite-dominated Basra, and hours later gunmen killed nine Sunni worshipers in a mosque. On Sunday, on a road near Baghdad, assassins pulled travelers out of their minivans, sorted them by faith, killed nearly two dozen Shiites and let the Sunnis go. Yesterday, men wearing police uniforms grabbed at least 56 people from bus stations and travel agencies in Baghdad and took them away -- no one knows why, no one knows where.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new government remains toothless and ineffectual, despite his pledge to end the sectarian violence. On Sunday, he failed yet again to reach agreement on who will run the only two ministries that matter -- the ones in charge of the army and the police. The butcher Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most prominent figure in the armed Sunni insurgency and the most hunted man in Iraq, remains at large and periodically manages to issue messages inspiring his followers to continue their jihad. (Just like his hero, Osama bin Laden.) Yet the president spent his weekend radio address pushing "a constitutional amendment that defines marriage in the United States as the union of a man and woman."

Immigration, the last artificial crisis, at least is a genuine issue. But the president and his allies did such a job of rabble-rousing that the best outcome, at this point, is probably for Congress to deadlock and end up doing nothing. The National Guard is headed for the frontier, apparently under orders not to do much of anything. Immigrants are still marching north, employers are still hiring them and self-appointed sentries are still patrolling the border, where something really bad is bound to happen sooner or later.

Yet the issue of "profound importance" the president urgently wants to highlight is "protecting the institution of marriage."

The diplomatic maneuvering over Iran's nuclear program, which looks like the next crisis, is at a critical point. Defiant words from Iranian leaders on Sunday rattled the world's financial markets yesterday and sent oil prices soaring -- threatening even the modest relief most analysts had predicted from $3-a-gallon prices at the gas pump. Just in time for summer vacation.

The president, however, would rather we all reflect on the fact that "marriage is the most enduring and important human institution." Not satisfied that he had gotten his message across in his Saturday radio address, Bush gave another speech in support of a marriage amendment yesterday.

It's almost surreal. For one thing, the president has no role in amending the Constitution. Proposed amendments must be passed in both the House and Senate by two-thirds majorities, and then they must win approval from the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. The president doesn't have to sign it. He doesn't even have to read it.

People who are close to the president are always telling us what an essentially decent man he is, without a bigoted bone in his body. But that doesn't square with all this demagoguery in support of a measure whose only effect would be to write discrimination against gay men and lesbians into the United States Constitution.

Bigotry, pure and simple.

But of course the president knows that there's essentially no chance an amendment to ban gay marriage will make it out of the Senate -- that in fact it might not even get out of the House. All he can possibly accomplish is to energize activists on the religious right, who otherwise might be tempted to sit out the November midterm elections.

It's risky to raise expectations you have no intention of fulfilling, but maybe enough of the Republican base can be fooled by this charade to make a difference in the fall.

Meanwhile it keeps us from talking about things that are real, and that really matter.

The writer will take questions at 1 p.m. today athttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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