There it is, in the abandoned first sentence of a response to Washington Post staff writers Michael Fletcher and Jim VandeHei. The journalists asked President Bush whether he would “expend any political capital to aggressively lobby senators for a gay marriage amendment.” With Air Force One flying toward Florida, a state whose ban of adoption by homosexuals the Supreme Court recently left standing, the first thought to reach the president’s lips was: “You know, I think that the situation in the last session….”
Weekend headlines interpreted his remarks. The Seattle Times declared “Bush to lay off gay-marriage issue.” On the other side of the planet, the Sydney Morning Herald heard the rumble: “Conservatives alarmed as Bush soft-pedals on gays.” 365Gay.com told its readers “Bush Drops Gay Marriage Amendment.” And gay-marriage stalwart Andrew Sullivan thanked the president, saying, “This piece of sanity…deserves praise and reciprocation.”
With the party’s firming grip on government power, the big story of the next four years may be the strength or weakness of intra-Republican bonds. The sides are already drawn, and headline writers could foil any GOP plans to keep their crossfire whizzing through the space between the president and the Senate.
Although social conservatives know that they don’t have anywhere else to go, the president should keep in mind the amount of capital–of any kind–they will expend on furthering his agenda if he abandons theirs. Saying that he believes a Federal Marriage Amendment to be necessary only goes so far if he is going to acquiesce to the Senate’s “waiting to see whether or not [the Defense of Marriage Act] will withstand a constitutional challenge.”
The Senate’s apparent strategy is a bit like spending the late Sixties promising to act only after the Supreme Court has found a right to abortion in the Constitution. The FMA is necessary, in part, because the destruction of DOMA and the nationalization of same-sex marriage would likely come in the same ruling: If DOMA falls to claims of “equal protection,” then homosexuals must possess the protected rights. If DOMA falls to assertions that the full-faith-and-credit clause applies to marriage, one state has already begun to hand out the licenses for other states to recognize. Even a persevering DOMA does not prevent state courts from imposing a new definition of marriage incrementally across the map.
But social conservatives also know that the political landscape is volatile, right now, and they are better off with a president who is tepidly protective of marriage’s meaning than one who is implicitly unconcerned with redefinition of it. Their choice doesn’t seem so discouraging, though, with the understanding that the nation’s lead executive has to take a broader view of the issues. For one thing, installing judges who will refrain from writing elite social preferences into the Constitution will require a tremendous expenditure of his “political capital,” and the president is more directly involved in that process; the other two branches of government are the more important ones on the marriage front.
Furthermore, there is a reason that same-sex marriage advocates such as Sullivan have spent the past year painting Bush as an extremist “theocon.” The president’s credentials among religious conservatives represent a sore spot for Bush-voting libertarians and liberal supporters of his leadership in the war on terror. Deftly played, cultural issues can be every bit as effective as “wedges” for social liberals as they claim them to be for conservatives. The weapon has obviously not been effectively wielded, however, if the likes of Instapundit Glenn Reynolds “see Bush as a beleaguered guy trying to keep his coalition together to fight a war, doing the bare minimum on [the same-sex marriage] front to get by.”
It would be naïve to deny that political posturing is surely part of Bush’s calculus, but this admission doesn’t justify cynicism. A relatively conservative president potentially in a position to reshape the Supreme Court would not want simultaneously to be the most visible representative of a cause that an influential portion of the citizenry decries as tantamount to theocracy.
Fortuitously, Bush’s support for the FMA has never been more than lukewarm (Reynolds’s word). He’s never lobbied aggressively. His discernible treatment has always been, and continues to be, one of general moral support. And until such time as he floats a woefully disappointing nominee for the Supreme Court, his rhetorical two-step during interviews shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Others of us can keep advocating for the FMA because we think it’s the right thing to do, regardless.
In fact, the quickly issued “clarification” that the administration continues to support an amendment may have been a bit too much. Andrew Sullivan’s happiness with the president and the mainstream media’s trumpeting of the “likely” unhappiness of social conservatives are good news. While the bully pulpit can be an effective tool, it can be swept out from under the speaker. Fewer gasping accusations that he’s preparing for an evangelical coup will surely help to keep the platform steady.
One can go too far in ascribing ulterior political motives to a newspaper, but opponents of cultural radicalization who are “alarmed” by the president’s gamesmanship should consider the significance of the New York Times’s differing weekend headline: “White House Again Backs Amendment on Marriage.” For the time being, we should prefer that this fact not be conveyed in such bold print.