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US Politics: Capital Letters

Republicans Make Gay Marriage an Issue in 2004 Presidential Campaign

Hastings Wyman | October 16, 2003

Schwarzenegger got 31% of the gay vote in California There's considerable evidence that the Republican high command has decided to make gay marriage a major issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. Among other straws in the wind, the White House issued a proclamation declaring "Marriage Protection Week", and Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie criticized gay activists as being intolerant of religion.

By using gay marriage as an issue, the GOP presumably hopes to make a clear distinction between the two parties, thus energizing the religious conservatives who make up a significant part of the Bush base to volunteer, contribute, and vote. Both parties use such wedge issues. Democrats generally favor class appeals - the rich against the poor - while Republicans gravitate toward socially conservative issues involving patriotism, religion, or race.

The most famous wedge issue was the first George Bush's attack on Michael Dukakis in 1988 for signing a law that allowed convicted felons like Willy Horton out of prison on furlough. Horton then raped a woman. Conservatives believed this showed the Democrats were soft on crime. Liberals thought use of the issue was racist, but the GOP didn't care what the liberals thought - they weren't going to vote for Bush anyway. Similarly, Al Gore didn't care what rich conservatives thought about his populist rhetoric in 2000.

Today's GOP isn't likely to adopt a tactic that opens it up to charges of racism, but it does need to pump up its right wing. Enter same-sex marriage. Since the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws, gay matrimony has moved to the front burner, energizing both the gay community and the religious right - in opposite directions.

GOP strategists may believe that gay marriage would make a good wedge issue. Overall, polls show that most voters believe marriage should be limited to a man and a woman; however, they also oppose a constitutional amendment on the subject. Since that's more or less the stance the president has taken, the GOP can beat the antigay marriage drum without fear of major backlash. Moreover, Bush's position is not that different from the leading Democratic candidates, who take a number of pro-gay stands, but stop short of supporting legal same-sex matrimony.

The current White House strategy on gays has been to switch-hit, siding with the social conservatives one month, appointing an openly gay person to a high-level post the next. Moreover, the presidential marriage protection proclamation was somewhat innocuously worded - though its anti-same-sex marriage intent was clear - and made no mention of the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which would add language to the Constitution limiting marriage to heterosexuals. However, the proclamation gave the White House imprimatur to "Marriage Protection Week," a public relations ploy by a group of antigay religious conservatives to promote the FMA.

In any case, an antigay strategy, spearheaded by opposition to same-sex marriage, could still cause the Republicans problems. Most gay people vote Democratic - most, but not all. In California's recent election, for example, exit polls showed 42 percent of gay voters favored recalling Gray Davis (D), and some 31 percent of gays voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Thus, given a moderate GOP option, a substantial minority of gay voters will vote Republican, even if the candidate is not perfect on gay issues. But if the White House decides to make two-groom/two-bride nuptials a major focus in 2004, it may not get that substantial minority of gay support. If the next election is as close as in 2000, that could make the difference between victory and defeat.

Hastings Wyman publishes Southern Political Report, a nonpartisan biweekly political newsletter.

Previous editions
Federal Marriage Amendment Faces Major Obstacles
The Political Tides Turn



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