Bush Joins the Culture War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; 10:48 AM

The media is abuzz with questions in the wake of President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Chief among them:

• What was with the timing? The White House has been talking about this announcement for weeks, so why now? Was it because the base was getting fidgety? Because his poll numbers were down? Or because marriage was being rapidly undermined? (Many journalists can't get past the fact that it came one day after Bush's first major partisan attack of the campaign season; see yesterday's column..)

• Whose votes does it win? It obviously helps Bush with his restive base, but does it also win over Reagan Democrats, black churchgoers, Hispanic Catholics?

• Whose votes does it lose? How much does this turn off gay Republicans, compassionate conservatives and moderates in general?

• How much will Bush push this?

• What exactly does the amendment's language mean?

And, of course:

• Was this a bold act of leadership to protect the very meaning of marriage from activist judges who would weaken the fabric of society? Or was it a craven political attempt to exploit discomfort with homosexuality as a wedge issue in the election and twist the Constitution into a tool to restrict liberty rather than expand it?

Here are some sweeping, authoritative overviews from Mike Allen and Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post; Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times; and Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times.

"This is as much about political advantage as it is about the law," says NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

On the CBS News, John Roberts says, "President Bush is on the scoreboard with a highly charged issue that will ignite the right and draw sharp lines between himself and his Democratic opponent."

In USA Today, Susan Page and Richard Benedetto write: "Political analysts say the emerging debate over the definition of marriage and the rights of gay men and lesbians is eclipsing long-standing controversies over abortion rights and other social issues." USA Today also has a FAQ, quotes from newsmakers and a summary of other countries' marriage laws.

In a news analysis in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank writes that "the compassionate conservative of 2000 has shown he is willing, if necessary, to rekindle the culture wars in 2004." Milbank explains why "Bush had no choice but to change course and add a highly charged cultural issue to the center of the campaign."

In a news analysis for the New York Times, Robin Toner writes: "It is a cardinal rule of politics, all the more so for a president who saw his father defeated largely because he failed to heed it fully: Pay attention to the party's base. . . .

"But will he pay a price with the centrist voters who so often decide presidential elections, as the Democrats hope?"

Peter S. Canellos warns in the Boston Globe that "both parties run the risk of alienating moderates by pushing too hard, political analysts and pollsters said yesterday. . . . Beyond the activists on both sides, there is little appetite for a fight."

In a San Francisco Chronicle news analysis, Carla Marinucci writes: "With his call for a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, George Bush, the self-styled wartime president, aims to shift the election-year agenda away from the economy and his handling of the Iraq war to what he views as a far friendlier topic -- the cultural wars at home."

Charles Babington and Helen Dewar report in The Washington Post that "Congress's Republican leaders, facing a divided caucus and significant Democratic resistance, expressed deep reservations yesterday about President Bush's call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and suggested that other approaches be tried first."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times that Bush said, "The amendment should fully protect marriage, while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage."

But, Kirkpatrick writes, "Determining whether the text of the proposed amendment would accomplish that, however, can require a close reading, to say the least."

(Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post deconstructed the amendment a few weeks ago.)

William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers explains that "changing the U.S. Constitution is difficult. It's happened only 27 times since 1789. Some amendments took several years to win approval; the last one took 203."

(That USA Today story points out that "The elder George Bush called for an amendment banning flag burning and Ronald Reagan sent Congress an amendment permitting organized prayer in public schools. Neither became law.")

Greg Hitt and Jacob M. Schlesinger point out in the Wall Street Journal that "the president's announcement came less than an hour after the Conference Board disclosed that its consumer confidence index plunged in February, a sign that voters are losing faith in the economic recovery that Bush campaign aides have been counting on."

Here's video of the president's announcement, a transcript and some comments by press secretary Scott McClellan on the issue.

Poll Watch

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday found that 46 percent of respondents favored an amendment banning gay marriage and 45 percent opposed it. But with the issue of gay marriage heavily in the news, support for such an amendment rose 8 percentage points from a similar poll taken last month. (See the trend data.)

A New York Times/CBS poll in mid-December found that 55 percent of Americans favored an amendment to the Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman, while 40 percent opposed the idea.

But a new National Annenberg Election Survey shows 48 percent would oppose such an amendment.

Miguel Bustillo reports on a Los Angeles Times poll that shows Californians are "evenly divided over whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, but most support allowing same-sex couples either to marry or form civil unions."

Meanwhile, in Blogland

The mainstream blogosphere (gosh, did I just say that?) is not exactly crawling with social conservatives.

Conservative (and gay) blogger Andrew Sullivan, for instance, is spectacularly and voluminously opposed to the amendment, and so are many of his readers.

National Review blogger Ramesh Ponnuru thinks the issue poses two political risks: "The lesser risk is that he talks about it too much, and looks too obsessed about the issue. The greater risk is that he talks about it too little, and allows the media, his opponents, and certain of his 'allies' to frame the issue."

Liberal bloggers like Nick Confessore of the American Prospect bemoan the announcement, but speculate that Bush "committed a major political blunder."

Editorial Page Reaction

Washington Post editorial: "President Bush abandoned the Constitution to election-year politics."

New York Times editorial: "It would inject meanspiritedness and exclusion into the document embodying our highest principles and aspirations."

Chicago Tribune editorial: "Were such an amendment to be adopted, it would render moot a process of debate and decision-making that the American public, through their legislatures, must be permitted to have in the years ahead."

San Francisco Chronicle editorial: "President Bush made it official Tuesday: He wants to add an element of discrimination to the U.S. Constitution."

Is Cheney the Next Target?

That is actually the headline from a National Review article about the military service issue by Byron York, who gets way ahead of anything I've read and writes:

"With a few exceptions, it appears that Democratic attacks on President Bush's record in the Air National Guard are beginning to subside. While a welcome development for Republicans, it is little relief to party strategists, who expect the issue to pop up again in the almost certain event that Sen. John Kerry becomes the Democratic presidential nominee. But a more immediate concern to the GOP is the suspicion that Democrats are pulling back on the Bush/Guard issue in part because they are preparing to attack Vice President Dick Cheney on his lack of service in Vietnam.

" 'There's going to be a massive attack on Dick Cheney soon,' says one source who keeps up with such matters. 'The Cheney story of deferments makes Bush look like Audie Murphy' -- a reference to the much-decorated World War II hero."

Nasty Letter

Via the American Prospect blog, a letter from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) to N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, questioning the proposed reclassification of fast-food jobs to the manufacturing sector. "I do have some questions of this new policy and I hope you will help me provide answers for my constituents: Will federal student loans and Trade Adjustment Assistance grants be applied to tuition costs at Burger College?" Etc.

Today's Calendar

Barry Schweid of the Associated Press looks ahead to Bush's meeting today with the new president of Georgia, "designed to support the young lawyer's drive to expand democracy, improve the economy and fight corruption in the former Soviet republic."

Doonesbury Offers Reward

Giles Wilson of BBC News Online Magazine writes about how Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau is "offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who will verify Mr Bush's account of his military service in Alabama in the early 70s." See doonesbury.com: His Teeth Were There: Was He?

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