The Big Idea

The Gay Panic Button

Why pressing it won’t work this time.

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Any political party counts on having a few hot buttons it can push at those moments when it is a few points behind in the polls with not much time left till Election Day. These issues have certain characteristics—a whiff of pandering, the flavor of insincerity, an aura of desperation. They aim to stir passion but have little, if any, effect on most people’s lives. They are touchstones for the party’s base but run a risk of alienating the center. They are often symbolic or culture-war issues relating to God, country, or values—though they sometimes involve race, class, or economics as well. Flag-burning has long been such an issue for Republicans (who have indeed brought it up again this year). Raising the minimum wage sometimes serves the same purpose for Democrats.

This week, George W. Bush smashed his party’s biggest “Break glass in case of fire” box, when he called on the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That Bush did this, with signs pointing to a possible Democratic recapture of Congress in the fall election, comes as no great surprise. The issue bailed him out in 2004, when ballot initiatives on gay marriage helped draw evangelical voters to the polls and may have provided Bush with his margin of victory in the decisive state of Ohio. But the gay marriage issue is much less likely to work for Republicans this time around, for three reasons.

The first is the combination of cynicism and futility evident in the way Republicans are bringing the matter up now. In 2004, when Bush campaigned on the Federal Marriage Amendment and the Senate first considered the matter (which fell short by a wide margin), there was at least a news hook. A decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalizing gay marriages had just gone into effect. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom issued about 4,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples on his own authority. A smattering of mayors in New York state followed suit. If gay marriage alarms you, it was a moment to be alarmed. But since 2004, the momentum has been thwarted (though pending court decisions in Washington state, New York, and New Jersey have the potential to revive it). The San Francisco couples were ruled not legally married by the California State Supreme Court. In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ordered local officials to cut it out. Two years later, 45 states have passed laws prohibiting gay marriage and Massachusetts remains the only place where it is legal.

After Bush’s re-election, Republicans simply blew off the issue—to the great dismay of leaders on the religious right, a few of whom indicated that they felt taken advantage of. Bush said in an interview that he saw little prospect for advancing a constitutional amendment in the Senate unless courts threw out the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that says states don’t have to recognize gay marriages solemnized in other states despite the “full faith and credit” clause. DOMA stands, the politics in the Senate haven’t changed, and Bush was as good as his word about not lifting a finger. The way he has now returned to the issue, over the stated objections of both his wife and his vice president, is bluntly insulting to his evangelical backers, who are in effect being told: Come and get your election-year bone, before we kick you back into your doghouse on Nov. 8.

More cartoons about gay marriage

A second reason the issue won’t work again is that Democrats have by now figured out how to handle the issue. It is reasonable to assume that a great many of them would, in their heart of hearts, like to see gay marriage legalized. But they recognize that pressing the case nationally is likely to set back the cause as well as their prospects for retaking Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. So, Democrats have honed their talking points on the subject: Marriage should be an issue for states (the federalist position usually espoused by Republicans); the amendment is discriminatory and would also ban civil unions, which most people favor (this is an unsettled question); and why tinker unnecessarily with the Constitution, especially while the Defense of Marriage Act is in force? This sort of framing works pretty well in most of the country. In conservative Southern states where they face a steeper climb, Democrats are even more pragmatic. For example, Harold Ford Jr., a black congressman who is seeking Bill Frist’s Senate seat in Tennessee, has simply taken gay marriage off the table by supporting the constitutional amendment.

The third reason gay marriage will fail as an issue is that Bush is bucking the tide of history. The past two decades have seen a quiet revolution in attitudes toward homosexuality throughout the West. People in advanced democracies around the world are growing more accepting of gay unions by the year. Younger people, who have grown up in a more gay-tolerant environment, find the notion of same-sex marriage unshocking and are less susceptible to covert appeals to bigotry. Various polls show a shift of up to 12 percentage points on gay marriage in just the past few years. Culture war politics aren’t exhausted and opposition to gay marriage remains a motivational issue in many places. But 2006 may be remembered as the year Republicans pressed the gay panic button and it failed.