Democrats are tempted by a cynical strategy to win elections — but it would be a grave mistake

Democrats are tempted by a cynical strategy to win elections — but it would be a grave mistake
President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in regards to the winter storms that impacted Texas Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in the Treaty Room in the Residence of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

We are told that Democrats unwisely allowed themselves to be tied to the liberal activist push for marriage equality in 2004, which made it easier for President George W. Bush to win a second term despite the disaster that was the occupation of Iraq.

We are told that Democrats should have told the liberal activists pushing that extreme proposal to "stand back and stand by." We are told that they should have Sister Souljah-ed the people who refused to accept anything less than marriage equality.

Didn't Democrats know that Republicans, such as Karl Rove, would paint the entire party as wanting to undermine traditional marriage during a period in which polls clearly showed most Americans favored a union of one man and one woman?

That's hogwash, of course, all of it.

But since the 2020 election, Democrats have been told essentially that that's the way to treat activists. If Democrats had taken that advice, marriage equality would have been delayed longer, if not denied. And Democrats would have been the primary cause.

It did not matter how many top Democratic candidates tried to divorce themselves from the issue. Rove ensured it would be front and center by getting it on ballots in nearly a dozen strategically-important swing states. He knew it would gin up the Republican vote and make independents and moderates think twice about supporting a Democratic Party that had taken things "too far" in the culture wars.

Rove knew that the polling was on his side then just as David Shor and Harry Enten are sure polling against "woke" issues, such as "defund the police," "Black Lives Matter," Dr. Seuss and "cancel culture" favor Republicans now. Ken Mehlman, Bush's reelection campaign manager, later told The Atlantic that he knew what Rove was doing in 2004 and 2006, including distributing literature in West Virginia linking homosexuality and atheism. He was a closeted gay man while working in the Bush administration, but has since said that he wished he had spoken up sooner.

This is how the Times reported those anti-gay, anti-same-sex marriage efforts:

Proposed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage increased the turnout of socially conservative voters in many of the 11 states where the measures appeared on the ballot on Tuesday, political analysts say, providing crucial assistance to Republican candidates including President Bush in Ohio and Senator Jim Bunning in Kentucky.
The amendments, which define marriage as between only a man and a woman, passed overwhelmingly in all 11 states, clearly receiving support from Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. Only in Oregon and Michigan did the amendment receive less than 60 percent of the vote.
But the ballot measures also appear to have acted like magnets for thousands of socially conservative voters in rural and suburban communities who might not otherwise have voted, even in this heated campaign, political analysts said. And in tight races, those voters—who historically have leaned heavily Republican—may have tipped the balance.
In Ohio, for instance, political analysts credit the ballot measure with increasing turnout in Republican bastions in the south and west, while also pushing swing voters in the Appalachian region of the southeast toward Mr. Bush. The president's extra-strong showing in those areas compensated for an extraordinarily large Democratic turnout in Cleveland and in Columbus, propelling him to a 136,000-vote victory.

Sound familiar? It should. It's the same narrative you would find in political news stories since November recounting the ways things like "defund the police" supposedly turned off Latino voters, for instance. They focus on short-term political outcomes to the near-exclusion of what's right or wrong, moral or immoral.

The next time you come across a centrist pundit or Democratic strategist blaming a 2020 election cycle that, for whatever reason, didn't meet their expectations—even though Democrats held the House and took back the Senate and White House—on leftists refusing to relent on their push for true equality, ask them if Democrats should regret being tied to marriage equality in 2004 when it wasn't as popular as it is now.

Should Democrats be ashamed that early in the Obama era they refused to listen to Rahm Emanuel and abandon the pursuit of a health care reform that had eluded the party for a century? Should they lament that they got "shellacked" in the 2010 congressional elections partly because Republicans relentlessly demonized the Affordable Care Act? Or should they be proud that they spent their political capital on a law that has helped—and continues helping—tens of millions of Americans?

The goal shouldn't be to win every election. That's not even realistic. Political winds ebb and flow for reasons even the best strategists don't fully understand. The goal should be to improve the country for the most vulnerable when you have the power to.

I have no idea how the 2022 midterms will turn out, whether Republicans will benefit from off-year elections like the party out of power nearly always does, or if Democrats will be able to stem the tide enough to retain one or both chambers of Congress. But I know they have the opportunity to do good right now, and that it would be a tragedy if they decided not to because they feared a future none of us can predict.

Today, marriage equality seems like such a no-brainer. It is kind of astonishing how long it took for most Americans to realize it. Issues that are unpopular today are likely to follow the same trajectory. Do the right thing and let the chips fall.

If Democrats take that stance, they will increase their bargaining power over time while helping millions of vulnerable Americans. How can that ever be wrong?

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