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Why the Amendment Banning Gay Marriages Is Bad Politics for Bush

George W Bush had barely finished endorsing a constitutional ban on gay marriage before pundits, left and right, began hailing the gambit as brilliant. Not only would W's handiwork shore up his slipping base, it would attract socially conservative Democrats, woo likeminded independents, and regenerate a stumbling and besieged reelection campaign. At long last, Mr. Bush's Machiavellian machine was up, running, and firing on all cylinders.

That's what the pundits said. But the pundits are wrong. Rather than a brilliant political ploy, the White House's constitutional gimmickry served only to deepen its political troubles and spotlight its variously self-imposed predicaments.

For starters, W's show of moral strength was, in actuality, a sign of weakness. In response to widespread and gut-wrenching worries about vanishing American jobs – the electorate's number one concern, as shown in poll after poll – Bush-Cheney's opening volley was to shout “Boo!” to the already culturally frantic. Other than its tired mantra and failed panacea of more and more tax cuts, the White House hasn't a clue on what to say about joblessness. Its amendment advocacy merely emphasized that.

The White House is, of course, content to let jobs sail overseas, but it can't really say that (though it did, ever so briefly). So the best it can do is lecture Americans in classic Hoover-speak to be patient and hope things improve. That, and give His Rotund Pomposity, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a pat on the butt as a political distraction.

It won't work. Democratic candidates have grabbed the jobs initiative, and with it, the voters' attention, which is properly fixed as well on the unalleviated crises of shrinking health care coverage, underfunded education, daily carnage in Iraq and unconscionable deficits. Oh, and then there is Alan Greenspan's suggestion that the indigent elderly should start doing more for the boys down at the yacht basin.

Demagoguing the same-sex-marriage bugaboo to the Falwell crowd – a surly bunch whose real frustration in life, one suspects, stems from lame-sex marriage – won't distract working Americans from their real problems for long.

What's more, 43's cultural kriegspiel is little more than warmed-over-41-redux-déjà vu all over again. In 1992 Papa Bush tried to placate the right and distract other social conservatives from noticing a sickly economy by playing a similar cultural-values game. The light emanating from the bomb that it was only illuminated Republican intolerance, not valid social concerns. Most Americans voted their pocketbook then, and there's little political-demographic data showing they'll do any other now. In fact, one pollster told the New York Times that research “suggests that voters are extremely cynical about the president's motives [regarding same-sex marriage].” It's the economy. The economy, ok?

Other voters – heretofore Bush supporters – are more than just cynical. They're history. Influential (and gay) columnist Andrew Sullivan, for one, has expressed outrage at Bush's tactical wedge and now vehemently opposes the president's reelection. And Log Cabin Republicans, who claim one million gays voted Bush's way in 2000, say their 2004 votes are at risk. What the White House gains from one group, it loses in others.

Last, most Americans simply dislike social engineering and especially dislike using the U.S. Constitution as a tool to accomplish it. The Constitution may be a living document, but it's not a day-by-day work in progress for cynical politicians to abuse as an opportunistic prop. (Well, Republicans don't mind. A National Annenberg Election Survey shows them favoring an amendment by 57 to 35 percent, while Democrats and Independents are opposed 57 to 34 and 52 to 37 percent, respectively.)

Despite what pundits have trumpeted with near unanimity, Bush's call for constitutionally banning gay marriage was anything but brilliant. Quite the contrary. Post-election analysis will show it to have been a shortsighted, desperate, futile and – above all – self-defeating act.

That's my prediction. Then again, I also predicted Dick Gephardt would win the Iowa caucuses.

© Copyright 2004 P. M. Carpenter

Mr. Carpenter's column is published weekly by History News Network and buzzflash.com.