Base Assumptions

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

This month's offensive by President Bush and his allies in Congress against gay marriage and flag burning proves one thing: The Republican Party thinks its base of social conservatives is a nest of dummies who have no memories and respond like bulls whenever red flags are waved in their faces.

The people who should be angry this week are not liberals or gays or lesbians, but the president's most loyal supporters. After using the gay-marriage issue shamelessly in the 2004 campaign, Bush and Republican leaders left opponents of gay marriage out in the cold as they concentrated on the party's real priorities: privatizing Social Security and cutting taxes on rich people.

When Bush was at his position of maximum strength after the 2004 election, did he use his political energy on behalf of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? Not at all. In an interview with The Post on Jan. 14, 2005, he dismissed the question, arguing that since many senators felt that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was already an effective bar to the spread of gay marital unions, there was no point in fighting for a constitutional change.

"Senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen," Bush said then. "I'd take their admonition seriously."

On Jan. 24, 2005, Republican Senate leaders announced their top 10 legislative priorities. The marriage amendment was nowhere to be seen.

At the time, social conservatives knew they were getting rolled. In mid-January, a group of them expressed their dismay in a letter to Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser.

"We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization . . . and the marriage issue," they wrote. "Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage? If so it would create outrage with countless voters who stood with him just a few weeks ago."

The marriage amendment is unlikely to pass (and it shouldn't, since marriage is an issue for the states to decide). What's changed is that the president and his friends in the Senate fear that their disillusioned base will stay home on Election Day. So they are about to engage in an exercise that George "Nothing Will Happen" Bush once acknowledged to be meaningless.

The constitutional amendment to ban flag burning is also about electoral politics. As a Senate Republican leader said happily, a vote against the amendment "would make a good 30-second spot." An official of the National Republican Congressional Committee said that "if Democrats choose to vote against a Constitutional amendment" banning flag desecration, "I think they'll pay a price."

Both quotations appeared in a New York Times story that ran 16 years ago -- from Bob Dole, the Republican leader, and Ed Rollins, the GOP official. Does wedge politics have to be so boringly predictable?

At least Scott Reed, Dole's 1996 campaign manager, has a sense of humor about all this. He told Knight Ridder's James Kuhnhenn last week: "If you're a gay who likes to burn flags, it's going to be a long year."

Ah, but there is one issue in the Republican Senate's June Pandering Trifecta that the party really cares about: the repeal of the inheritance tax on large fortunes. The Republicans go hot and cold on the social conservatives, but they're always solicitous of the really, really privileged.

Current law would keep the estate tax falling (eventually to zero) until the end of 2010, so there is no urgency to act now. Or is there? The Los Angeles Times quoted Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) this weekend as acknowledging that the position of the estate tax abolitionists is "eroding" and "could be dramatically negatively impacted this fall and after the next presidential election."

So the real question is whether moderate Democrats and Republicans choose to hand the friends of the truly wealthy a victory at the very moment the tide is starting to turn toward fiscal sanity. The one thing worse than opportunistically using wedge issues is cravenly selling out the nation's financial future to appease the powerful.

Social conservatives, who are a lot smarter than their leaders think, should watch the Senate closely this month. My bet is that their so-called champions will fight much harder on behalf of the interests of the affluent than for the "values" that conservative politicians proclaim with such pious urgency whenever they're in danger of losing an election.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company