Dividing Not Uniting

Human Rights

With its economic policies failing to lift the economy, its Iraq policy in shambles, and its international credibility shredded by the failure to find WMD, the Bush Administration has done the only thing it knows how to do in a tight spot: Head straight for the wedge issue that, according to the Washington Post, "satisfies the conservative base." Despite a President having absolutely no role in the passage of a Constitutional amendment and despite opposition from many of his allies in Congress, the President -- who promised to be a "uniter not a divider" -- yesterday announced his support for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. American Progress issued a statement in response, saying, "The Constitution has been amended to eliminate slavery, to give women the right to vote, and to secure for every person the equal protection of the laws. It has never been amended to mandate discrimination. Nor should it be."

The announcement was a dramatic election-year shift in the Administration's previous position that gay marriage was a state issue. His move to a constitutional amendment demonstrates that when the going gets tough, he caves to the right wing of his party. Four years ago, then-Gov. Bush portrayed himself as a centrist in the election. But over the course of his term, he has alienated the mainstream, polarized the population, and lost general public support, leaving him increasingly desperate to tackle issues and policies that play to his conservative base.

The American Progress statement says, "While religious denominations must be free to decide what constitutes religious marriage under the tenets of their faith, the states should be free to decide whether to recognize civil marriage for their gay and lesbian citizens." President Bush and Vice President Cheney held a similar position before they felt the need to play to their right-wing base. On February 15, 2000, Bush said about gay marriage, "The state can do what they want to." Also, on April 21, 2000 he said, "It's the right of the state to make that decision" on gay marriage, and on May 5, 2000 he said gay marriage is "going to be up for cities and states to make those decisions." On October 5, 2000 Cheney echoed Bush saying, "I think the fact of the matter, of course, is [same-sex marriage] is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area." And while Bush and Cheney have now reversed themselves on the states' rights issue, other conservatives in Congress have not. As the Boston Globe reports, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who heads the committee the amendment would go through, "said he would prefer to leave the issue to the states."

The NYT editorial board notes, "In his remarks yesterday, President Bush tried to create a sense of crisis. He talked of the highest Massachusetts court's recognition of gay marriage, San Francisco officials' decision to grant marriage licenses to gay couples and a New Mexico county's doing the same thing. He did not say the New Mexico attorney general found that gay marriages violate state law, the California attorney general is asking the California Supreme Court to review San Francisco's actions, and Massachusetts is considering amending its State Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. The president, who believes so strongly in states' rights in other contexts, should let the states do their jobs and work out their marriage laws before resorting to a constitutional amendment."

Along with playing to the radical right-wing base, the President's announcement yesterday was a clear effort to divert attention from economic issues -- issues that even his own party is increasingly worried about. The Washington Post reports, "Battleground-state governors of both parties see the presidential election as an extremely close battle, likely to be dominated by economic issues." The governors agreed "that the pocketbook issues of jobs and taxes are likely to determine whether President Bush can win a second term." Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reports, "voters' job jitters are raising anxiety levels in the Bush campaign." As the story notes, "Tuesday was a day to be nervous at President Bush's re-election campaign headquarters" because a new report shows "that voters are worried about where the economy is headed." And the report does not appear to be an aberration: "The University of Michigan's similar survey of consumer sentiment fell just as sharply." As the Miami Herald asked, "With so many urgent challenges confronting the country, why would President Bush push a ban on gay marriage to the top of the national agenda? And why now?" The answer: "The president's announcement yesterday bears the unmistakable imprimatur of a political maneuver. It ill-serves the country."

Echoing his controversial "preemption policy," the President also justified his resort to the constitutional process yesterday by worrying that "there is no assurance that the Defense of Marriage Act will not itself be struck down by activist courts." But as the Washington Post noted, "it is reckless to set about amending the Constitution to ensure victory in court cases that haven't yet been filed" and "President Bush abandoned the Constitution to election-year politics." Noting that the President's proposal would be the first Constitutional amendment limiting rights since Prohibition, the NYT editorial said, "President Bush's amendment would be the first adopted to stigmatize and exclude a group of Americans." They added, "if Mr. Bush had been acting as a president yesterday, rather than a presidential candidate, he would have tried to guide the nation on the divisive question of what rights gay Americans have."

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