Gay Marriage: The New Democratic Wedge Issue

Gay marriage is suddenly good politics. Michelle Goldberg on the new Democratic wedge issue.

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In 2004, a nationwide campaign against gay marriage proved crucial to returning George W. Bush to the White House. All over the country that year, Republican mailers and robocalls warned of the dread specter of same-sex families. Eleven states had constitutional amendments on the ballot banning gay marriage and, in some cases, domestic partnerships as well. Besides firing up the base, these initiatives gave evangelical pastors an ostensibly non-partisan issue to mobilize around, allowing them to mount sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations without violating IRS law governing church politicking. “On November 2, I see people marching like a holy army to the voting booth,” pastor and televangelist Rod Parsley intoned from his Columbus, Ohio megachurch. “I see the Holy Spirit anointing you as you vote for life, as you vote for marriage, as you vote for the pulpit!”

Many true believers did just that. In one famous exit poll, 22 percent of voters cited “moral values” as their chief concern. “Senator Kerry probably received about 56 percent of the vote from people most concerned with foreign policy or economic issues, the traditional subjects for presidential campaigns,” Bush adviser Marvin Olasky wrote in the evangelical magazine World. All 11 state amendments passed. Gay marriage proved to be the ultimate wedge issue.

Now, it could be again, but in a way no one imagined seven years ago. Friday’s historic passage of marriage equality in New York instantly increased the prestige of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Surveys showed a decisive majority of New Yorkers in favor. Nationwide, recent polls reveal that, for the first time, a slim majority of Americans back gay marriage. There’s been a dramatic public shift among Republican elites. Among the GOP base, though, opposition to gay rights remains overwhelming. That means that for Democrats, and particularly for President Obama, supporting gay marriage isn’t just the right thing to do–it’s also the clever thing to do.

No other issue so divides the Republican Party’s small-government wing from its Christian right foot soldiers. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, a group of ultra-wealthy Republican donors played a powerful role in getting the New York law passed. Motivated in part by their own gay loved ones, they offered their influence and money “to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.” Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman and Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, lobbied hard for the new law. (After coming out as gay last year, Mehlman expressed his regret at his silent complicity in anti-gay politics.) Former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson fought to overturn California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, arguing in Newsweek that “same-sex marriage is an American value.” Laura Bush and Cindy McCain have both come out for marriage equality.

Some of the most moving moments in New York’s gay marriage fight involved Republicans. There was the gruff eloquence of Republican State Senator Roy McDonald, who told reporters, “You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.” State Senator Mark Grisanti, a Catholic from Buffalo who ran for office as a gay marriage opponent, decided to vote yes at the last minute, saying, “I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is the same rights that I have with my wife.” It’s hugely significant that the language of moral bravery and family values now belongs to the marriage equality side.

But the conservative grassroots remain strongly opposed to gay marriage. An April CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll showed that while 64 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Independents support marriage equality, 71 percent of Republicans oppose it. The Tea Party movement has no official stance on gay marriage, but it’s shot through with homophobia. Earlier this month, the Tea Party Nation emailed its members a warning from right-wing activist Alan Caruba about the homosexual agenda: “I find all this activity to legalize ‘gay marriage’ and to introduce a gay agenda into the curriculums in the nation’s schools a distinct threat to the fabric of a society based on the undisputed normality of heterosexuality.” A number of ferociously anti-gay figures are stars of the Tea Party circuit. Among them is Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court judge who, in a 2002 opinion awarding custody of three children to their allegedly abusive father over their lesbian mother, called homosexuality “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated.”

Given the gulf within their own party, it’s no wonder that Republican presidential candidates haven’t quite figured out how to talk about gay marriage. On Sunday, Michele Bachmann said that New York had the right to legalize gay marriage under the 10th amendment, even as she promised to push for a constitutional amendment to trump such state laws. Mitt Romney declares himself both “in favor of gay rights” and in favor of a constitutional amendment denying gay people the right to marry.

Obama, of course, can hardly point out the absurd contradiction there, because his own position is similarly incoherent. If he were to come out for gay marriage, a position that most of his supporters assume he agrees with anyway, he would thrill them while dividing his opponents. And after 2004, it would be especially gratifying to see gay marriage used as a Democratic wedge issue. The arc of history may always bend towards justice, but rarely do we have the chance to see it happen so very quickly.