By E.J. Kessler

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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While religious conservatives are hailing President Bush’s endorsement Tuesday of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, some Republicans are expressing alarm that it could backfire.

Bush’s move seemed aimed at evangelical Christian supporters, who have been pressuring the president to speak out clearly in favor of such an amendment, warning that conservative voters will not be motivated to go to the polls if he does not take a strong stand on the issue.

“The issue has a tremendous symbolic importance for a significant percentage of his constituency,” said Washington media strategist Eddie Mahe. “For him not to support it would not be acceptable to them, they see this as so fundamental.”

But some Republicans and analysts are worried that the president may be standing on shaky political ground.

Bush’s friend Fred Zeidman, the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said, “I think that any strategy that’s not inclusive is not a good strategy. I’m a big-tent Republican.” Zeidman added, however, that gay marriage is a moral issue for Bush. “I’m proud of any politician who votes his conscience, not the polls,” Zeidman said.

A historian of the American presidency at McGill University and a columnist for the Forward, Gil Troy, took the long view in arguing that Bush “is making a couple of mistakes” with his new gambit. By pushing such an amendment, Troy said, Bush risks “running into the constitutional conservatism of the American people, the decision not to monkey with that holy document and open up the Pandora’s Box of constitutional change.”

Citing two failed initiatives to amend the Constitution, Troy said, “We’ve seen it with the Equal Rights Amendment and with a constitutional amendment on a balanced budget.”

Americans are also more tolerant than Bush or the media give them credit for being, so the move is bad politics on other scores, Troy said.

“W. is traumatized by his father’s troubles with the conservatives, but he’s misreading the issues,” Troy said. “When Patrick Buchanan went ballistic on lifestyle issues [at the 1992 Republican convention], it hurt the Republicans. [An amendment against gay marriage] is the mirror image of Bill Clinton’s mistake on gays in the military…. A gay marriage amendment is the politics of the primaries. It’s not the politics of November.”

But, according to polls, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman and barring marriage between gay and lesbian couples has narrow popular support. A Gallup poll taken February 9 through 12 showed that 53% of the public supports and 45% opposes such an amendment.

Mahe dismissed concerns that Bush’s endorsement would hurt him with the “swing” voters who decide elections. “Before you have your swing, you have to have your base,” Mahe said. “This is an issue that goes hard to his base. Those who swing against him would have seven other reasons to swing against him [before this one].”

Indeed, members of Bush’s base have been warning that the president needed to do more to promote an amendment.

“I think his biggest problem will be social conservatives who are not motivated to work for the ticket and to ensure their fellow Christians get to the polling booth,” Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, told the Washington Times last week. “If there is a rerun of 2000, when an estimated 6 million fewer evangelical Christians voted than in the pivotal year of 1994, then the Bush ticket will be in trouble.”

In a televised speech at the White House, Bush appeared to be answering such calls from conservatives.

“If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America,” Bush said. “Decisive and democratic action is needed, because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country.”

Bush cited recent court decisions and the actions of some mayors issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples as the reason for his decision.

“After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” Bush said. “Their actions have created confusion on an issue that requires clarity.”

The push for an amendment was defended by pollster Kellyanne Conway, who described it as a “necessary” response to “judicial overreach and disrespect of the law” on the part of local officials, which “comes seven-and-a-half years after a Democratic president and 342 members of the House passed a Defense of Marriage Act.”

Moreover, 85 senators (although not Massachusetts lawmaker John Kerry) voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and 38 states — the two-thirds majority needed for passing a constitutional amendment — have voted for defense of marriage laws.

Conway said Bush’s team was not angling for the issue, which was forced on it by the left. Even so, “every level-headed strategist I know, Democrat or Republican, who will give an honest answer says this issue is more detrimental to Democrats than Republicans. That’s why John Kerry has backed away from his own vote on Defense of Marriage.”

Kerry said in response to Bush’s move, “While I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, for 200 years this has been a state issue. I oppose this election year effort to amend the Constitution in an area that each state can adequately address, and I will vote against such an amendment if it comes to the Senate floor.”

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