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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2004 / 2 Adar, 5764

John H. Fund

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Marriage of Inconvenience: Why same-sex nuptials make Democrats nervous | The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot likes to say that on the politics of gay rights, the loser will be whichever side raises the issue first.

For many years, Republicans came up losers because media outlets portrayed them as intolerant, as indeed many of them were. The score evened last year when a 4-3 majority of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court demanded the state recognize same-sex marriage. Republicans probably nudged a little ahead last week when San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to throw away the rule of law and declare it was his duty to recognize marriages between gay couples, despite a 2000 voter initiative codifying the traditional definition of marriage.

As courts refuse to issue injunctions to stop San Francisco from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, many Democrats are running scared. In the words of Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor of the liberal Sacramento Bee, they know Mr. Newsom has committed an act of "monumental political stupidity."

Reading media reports of the 3,000-plus gay couples who have taken out marriage certificates in San Francisco make the mayor's civil disobedience look like a cross between a civil-rights triumph and a love story. That's because the vast majority of journalists support same-sex marriage, including right-of-center pundits such as David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan and Jim Pinkerton. But Democratic politicians know better. California's Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal members, startled her base last week when she announced she opposed changing state law to recognize same-sex marriage. A spokesman for the senator said she believes the state's domestic partnership law provides gay couples with "full rights and responsibilities."

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of Congress, says he warned Mayor Newsom that his stunt would fail legally and would also force more-mainstream politicians to support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He is aware there has been a backlash since the Massachusetts court decision, and San Francisco's civil disobedience may accelerate that. A December poll by CBS and the New York Times found that 61% of Americans opposed gay marriage, up from 55% in July. Opposition to gay rights was the highest since the survey began asking the question in 1992.

The poll found that blacks and Hispanics--core Democratic voting blocs--were especially loath to embrace same-sex marriage. Jesse Jackson told a Harvard Law School audience last week that he supports "equal protection under the law" for gays, but he did not endorse full marriage rights and questioned the analogy between gay rights and civil rights: "Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution and did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote." He warned the issue was treacherous territory for Democrats in 2004 because it was part of a "Republican tactical strategy to distract from such issues as foreign policy and education."

Yet the GOP didn't start this fight. Mayor Newsom is a Democrat, and although three of the four justices in the Massachusetts majority were appointed by Republican governors, no one believes they were acting out of cynically partisan motives in declaring a right to same-sex marriage.

Indeed, Democrats in California are angry that Mayor Newsom's stunt will distract voters from other issues where they are on firmer ground. And they're right to worry, because marriage appears to be a dividing line for many people between tolerance for gays--which continues to grow--and official validation of the gay lifestyle.

Support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is surprisingly uniform across demographic and regional categories. A Zogby poll last week found that 52% of voters in states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 backed such an amendment. But so did 50% of voters in Al Gore states. A Newsweek poll this month found that 36% of Democrats strongly supported a constitutional amendment.

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In California, the ballot measure to declare marriage as a union between a man and a woman won 61% of the vote in 2000, carrying 52 out of 58 counties--even as Al Gore trounced George W. Bush in the state, 53% to 42%. Respect for the will of the voters is one reason Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, generally sympathetic to gay rights, told a convention of California Republicans on Friday night that the state will refuse to recognize San Francisco's action. He demanded that San Francisco officials obey the law.

The liberal Mr. Schrag rang the alarm bell for Democrats in his column this week. "Just when Bush's support and his poll standings are shrinking, here come San Francisco's city-county sanctioned gay marriages--almost certain to be declared invalid anyway--to rouse Bush's base," he wrote. "Bill Clinton learned painfully that wading into the gay front of the culture wars in his first days in office is not a good way to begin. . . . Couldn't Newsom have done his fellow Democrats a favor and waited a year before adding fuel to the fire?"

Republicans still have to be careful about appearing, or being, intolerant and leaving themselves open to charges of hypocrisy. David Boaz of the Cato Institute once wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times chiding family-values conservatives for criticizing gays while most social problems--abortion, divorce, latchkey kids, out-of-wedlock births--result from misbehaving heterosexuals. He noted that articles on homosexuality in conservative publications far outnumber those on, say divorce. "Scapegoating gay men and lesbians may get conservatives some votes, but it is not going to solve any of American families' real problems," he says.

Daniel Weintraub, a libertarian-leaning columnist at the Sacramento Bee, points to a possible compromise. He would prefer the government get out of the marriage business entirely, making all unions a private matter among couples and their faiths. "Our legal system already has the tools to handle the contract implicit in the ceremony, and the state needn't do much other than allow the courts to enforce those contracts like any other."

Gays are doing their cause no long-term good by pushing for official government validation of their unions as marriages at a time when public opinion is hardening against such a notion. Opponents of extending basic legal rights such as hospital visitation and insurance benefits to gays are on the losing side of history and are being sidetracked from more important moral questions.

Both sides would do well to recall Ronald Reagan, who courageously opposed a 1978 initiative in California that would have barred gays from teaching in public schools. When a small group of gays met with him after his opposition led to the measure's overwhelming defeat, he was asked his opinion of gay marriage. "Well, now," he told them, "I would just warn you that if you get in bed with the government, you'll get more than a good night's sleep."

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01/06/04: Unintended Consequence: How Terry McAuliffe and James Carville created Howard Dean
09/03/03: The Anti-Dean: Why Hillary opposes the Democratic front-runner
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10/31/02: Blue Gray: California's governor answers a Nobel Prize winner with obscenities
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07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
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02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
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02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
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11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
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©2001, John H. Fund