The Magazine

The White House Gets Engaged

From the March 8, 2004 issue: The politics of the marriage amendment.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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As for the normally adroit Kerry, a baffling exchange in the same California debate with reporter Ron Brownstein seemed to leave him with the following positions: He is happy to have voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but he no longer believes, as he did then, that DOMA is unconstitutional. He is against DOMA now, but thinks Congress probably shouldn't repeal it. He is in favor of the definition of marriage as involving a husband and a wife, but any congressional effort to codify this Kerry position would be polarizing, "gay bashing," or (most likely) both.

As this performance suggests, Democrats are both uncomfortable with where they are and stuck with it for now. Congressional Democrats are nearly unanimous against the Marriage Amendment, and thus any near-term vote count will show that the needed two-thirds majority is not possible in either house. Timid Republican congressional leaders will no doubt try to conclude that holding such votes in 2004 is a bad idea because "the votes are not there."

In the wake of the president's endorsement, this kind of contrived escape is the one thing that could make the GOP a net loser in this year's marriage debate. Now that he is committed on this issue, the president will need to make sure that House and Senate votes take place before the election, because only with stark, recorded, up-or-down votes will the Republicans clearly be seen by the electorate as the party that is serious about taking action to defend marriage. Because the national Democrats have no intention of openly advocating gay marriage, the lack of a vote on the constitutional amendment designed to prevent it would leave the two parties' positions on the issue muddled and hard to distinguish.

George W. Bush did not take the oath of office 37 months ago thinking he would have to fight for the Judeo-Christian definition of marriage--any more than he expected to be fighting a world war against Islamist terrorism. But as his foes have learned, strong leaders step up not just to the goals they campaigned on, but to challenges they never could have imagined.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.