TV & Radio
Posted on Mon, May. 22, 2006
The American Debate
Gay-marriage ban a no-win deal for Bush
By Dick Polman
Philadelphia Inquirer Political Analyst
The religious conservatives who worked hard to reelect President Bush in 2004 have long anticipated that the White House would reward them by pushing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
But that's not happening.
Too many other issues predominate, everything from Iraq to immigration. As a result, Bush seems ill-positioned to spend dwindling political capital on a social crusade - especially at a time when a nod toward greater religiosity might turn off secular Republican voters and thus imperil the moderate Republicans in Congress who are already struggling to keep their jobs in November.
So the religious right, which may well have been pivotal in helping Bush keep his job, appears destined for major disappointment in 2006.
It's true that Senate Republican leaders, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, have slated a floor vote on the amendment for early June, in hopes that grateful religious conservatives will show up to vote in November. But the overall party message is mixed. Laura Bush told Fox News last weekend that same-sex marriage should not be used "as a campaign tool," and Mary Cheney, the vice president's gay daughter, told CNN Wednesday that "writing discrimination into the Constitution of the United States is fundamentally wrong."
Bush has said virtually nothing. Actually, on the eve of his second term, he said he was averse to pushing hard for an amendment, so in a sense he is simply being consistent.
To religious-right leader Gary Bauer, the president's underwhelming effort is "inexplicable." Bauer said the other day that Bush "should be calling members of Congress, twisting arms, making public statements, rallying the troops. This issue is extremely important to his base. This administration needs to get its base back." He warned that if Bush doesn't crusade against gay marriage, "this is just going to be one more thing that keeps people at home on Election Day."
A similar warning was issued by Tony Perkins, another religious-right leader, who told Fox News on Wednesday that Bush faced "the very real potential of deflating what's left of the GOP base. They deflated the fiscal conservatives, because of [the increases in] spending, and now they risk deflating the social conservatives by failing to act on our interests."
Some Republican strategists are sympathetic. Bill Pascoe, who has ties to the conservative wing, says that these aggrieved activists are the "most likely to work their butts off for the party's candidates in the midterm elections," and after their herculean labors in 2004, "they have every right to expect that their concerns will be addressed."
Bauer is not just spinning for his side when he contends that this issue "is a major reason why the president is sitting in the Oval Office today." In 2004, the Bush forces and their religious-right allies placed antigay-marriage measures on the ballot in 11 states - all of which passed. Several teams of political scientists have determined that those measures stoked conservative turnout and swelled Bush's tally. One scholarly paper, referring to pivotal Ohio, has concluded: "Gay marriage may well have put Bush over the top in the state."
Which brings us to 2006. Some analysts argue that the careers of key Republican senators may hinge on whether social and religious conservative voters are sufficiently motivated - and that, in turn, could hinge on whether they view the GOP as sufficiently committed to defending traditional matrimony.
In Pennsylvania, Bush ally Santorum, a cosponsor of the constitutional ban, will need a strong November turnout from cultural conservatives, notably in Chester, Lancaster and Westmoreland Counties.
In Ohio, imperiled Mike DeWine, mindful of the base, is vowing to take a lead role next month in pushing for the ban. And in Tennessee (where a state measure against same-sex marriage will be on the ballot), the GOP hopes a big conservative turnout will thwart Democratic Rep. Harold Ford's bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"These voters are crucial to the Republicans in tight races," said Bruce Cain, a political analyst who directs the University of California's Washington program. "Even if we're talking about only one or two percentage points, that could be enough to make the difference, especially for someone like Santorum."
(Even Democratic chairman Howard Dean says it's wise to woo religious conservatives; this month, he visited Pat Robertson's TV show and said that the 2004 Democratic platform endorsed "marriage between a man and a woman." But this turned out to be Dean's latest verbal misfire, because the Democratic platform endorsed no such thing.)
Yet, if the clout of these voters is so important, what explains the muted White House push for the ban? Three words: competing political interests.
Other Republican factions are demanding attention. Party moderates are concerned about the fate of House incumbents from socially tolerant districts in the Northeast. The fear is that many party voters might stay home, or swing to the Democrats, if they feel their leaders are more fixated on gay marriage than on issues they deem more important, such as Iraq and the price of gas.
These vulnerable incumbents include Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs, and three Republicans in Connecticut: Rob Simmons, Chris Shays, and Nancy Johnson. To survive, all five will rely on moderate Republicans and independents. Yet, according to surveys by Pew, Bush's job-approval rating among independents fell from 48 percent in January 2005 to 22 percent a month ago. A full-throated crusade against gay marriage would not bring that number northward.
GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Friday: "We can't afford to alienate moderate voters any more than they are already alienated... . Issues have a shelf life. Gay marriage passed everywhere [on state ballots] in 2004, but today, a lot of people look at that issue and think, 'It is so over and done.' Our party base is already fracturing, and if we emphasize gay marriage now, it would create new divisions."
Why are so many moderate Republican voters feeling alienated? Party strategist Craig Shirley suggested, "There is a fear, among some in the party, that the Republicans are being identified too much as a theological party." With good reason, apparently: Fabrizio estimates, based on his own surveys, that half of today's Republicans are "theocrats" who want government to "promote traditional values by protecting traditional marriage," as opposed to wanting less government intrusion into personal lives.
In a sense, this split sums up the dilemma for Santorum this year: If he pushes hard on issues like this, his "theocratic" base may respond favorably - yet that could hurt him badly in the politically moderate, vote-rich suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
But religious-right leaders insist that saying no to gay marriage is a mainstream position; they cite recent Pew polls showing that 51 percent of Americans oppose the concept. For that reason, said Gary Bauer, "President Bush should be pushing this. This is an issue where the public is on his side, yet he seems too busy to deal with it. At least he'd be able to talk about something that can get people's heads nodding, instead of him getting tuned out."
What Bauer didn't mention is that the polls show far less support for amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And the subject doesn't seem to register on the intensity scale, either. The latest Fox News poll, released Friday, listed the 20 issues that Americans are most concerned about, and gay marriage didn't even make the list.
That reality is a big reason why the Senate vote next month is just a gesture to the religious right. Sixty-seven senators are needed to pass a constitutional amendment, and there's no way GOP leaders can goad even all their own senators to vote for it. (John McCain is against it.)
Hence, Bush's difficult position. He can steer clear of the fight, as he is doing now, and risk alienating religious conservatives who await their reward for services rendered. Or he can spend precious capital in a losing cause, and risk alienating moderates and independents.
GOP strategist Pascoe said that, in the end, Bush has to ensure that the antigay-marriage forces show up on Election Day. After all, he said, citing the sour mood within Republican ranks, "our side is going to need every vote it can get."
Contact staff writer Dick Polman at 215-854-4430 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his daily blog at http://go.philly.com/polman