It was a moving sight for anyone with a heart and a shred of human feeling. The Republican mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, broke down in tears at a press conference on Wednesday, September 19, as he announced his support for gay marriage — and concurrently announced the reason for his support: his daughter’s homosexuality. Attorneys for the city of San Diego will now, with the mayor’s assent and at the city council’s direction, file an amicus curae brief in support of homosexual marriage with the Supreme Court of California. In 2006, the Court agreed to review whether the state’s refusal to recognize homosexual marriage is a violation of anti-discrimination laws, and the case is still pending.
At first glance, the mayor’s act appears politically quixotic. A preponderance of San Diegans rejected homosexual marriage in the 2000 election, when they endorsed Proposition 22 with a majority of 62 percent. That proposition, which defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, was passed by the state electorate by almost exactly the same margin, with 61.4 percent in favor. Furthermore, the mayor has probably alienated large swaths of the San Diegan Republican base with his decision. As he begins his reelection campaign, he must be aware that he is now deeply vulnerable to a conservative challenger. This will almost certainly be local businessman Steve Francis, who has already announced an exploratory committee, and brings with him stronger free-market and social-conservative credentials than Sanders does. In this light, Sanders appears to have taken a risk in standing on principle, of a sort.
This narrative, with Mayor Sanders offering a veritable sacrifice of love, is the preferred one from the left: Salon’s Joan Walsh gushed about “The courage of Mayor Jerry Sanders,” and The Huffington Post’s Evan Wolfson lauded Sanders’s “courage and heart.” Was he, in fact, courageous? Proposition 22’s margin of victory in 2000 is much mentioned in media stories on Sanders’s announcement; less mentioned are polling data in San Diego and California in the intervening seven years. A February 2004 Field Poll found that only 50 percent statewide disapproved of homosexual marriage, and 44 percent approved — and San Diego county was one of the top four areas in support of the idea. A March 2006 Field Poll revealed the same basic proportions statewide. Trends are therefore in the mayor’s favor on this issue, making his political courage less dramatic. It is also difficult to see a political downside to a performance that generates popular sympathy and national media all at once.
“I’ve decided to lead with my heart,” said the tearful mayor, and we should not doubt his sincerity on that count. Neither should we regard him as especially courageous in the public square. Courage typically signifies the hewing to core principles in the face of adversity, not their abandonment in the face of personal vicissitude. In the 1988 presidential campaign, the second debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was marked by the infamous query from moderator Bernard Shaw: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis sealed his electoral fate by sticking to his guns on the issue, reminding Shaw, “I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” One imagines Jerry Sanders in that position, announcing that perhaps, with a family member involved, he is not so opposed to the death penalty after all. The Mayor of San Diego has therefore achieved something truly remarkable, in making us sentimental for the political courage of Michael Dukakis.
For all its underlying absurdity and bathos, Californians — and Americans — concerned with the defense of traditional marriage are ill advised to dismiss the spectacle of Mayor Sanders. His announcement of September 19 neatly encapsulates two tremendously powerful forces favoring the advance of homosexual marriage: that of emotive sympathy, and that of the persistent mischaracterization of marriage rights as they exist now. The former is self-evident: The mayor believes he is protecting his daughter, and ordinary people are rightly sympathetic with that parental impetus, independent of its form or content.
The latter is more subtle and more damaging in the long run, as bad ideas are more enduring than emotion. Speaking of civil unions, which he previously supported and now does not, Mayor Sanders said, “The concept of a separate but equal institution is not something I can support.” In apparent sincerity, the mayor has accepted two key fallacies advanced by partisans of homosexual marriage: first, that civil unions are meant by their proponents to be equivalent to marriages; second, that Americans at large do not all enjoy the same rights to marriage. The truth, as same-sex-marriage advocates recognize, is that civil unions are not marriages and were never meant to be. The more profound truth is that everyone already has, and has always had, precisely the same right to marry. What is at stake in the marriage debate is not a fictitious equality — Mayor Sanders’s lesbian daughter has the same marital rights now as does his other, heterosexual daughter — but a very real novelty. Mayor Sanders was forthright enough to give us his emotional and, yes, heartbreaking honesty on the issue, and the advocates for homosexual marriage will get a generous mileage out of it in the public square. What a pity they do not match the mayoral honesty on the rational level.
– Joshua Treviño was a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. He writes at joshua.trevino.at.