Faster than you can say "family values," the major Democratic candidates for president are running away from the Massachusetts Supreme Court's nullification of that state's ban on gay marriage. While pleading for tolerance, they're falling over themselves to repudiate gay marriage. They see no way to take on that fight and win. But there is a way.
The answer lies in the emerging cliché that gay marriage is the abortion issue of 2004. The analogy is more apt than its purveyors recognize. Abortion started out as a losing issue for the left because Americans found the procedure repugnant. They still do. Yet today the legality of abortion is so untouchable that President Bush conceded last month, "I don't think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions."
What changed? Liberals persuaded the public to separate abortion from choice. Choice, unlike abortion, is a broadly shared American value. You don't have to support abortion to support choice. A politician can say, "I'm pro-choice. The issue isn't whether you have an abortion. The issue is whether you have the choice."
Homosexuality can be separated from marriage in roughly the same way. Marriage is a broadly shared American value. You don't have to support homosexuality to support marriage. A politician can say, "I'm pro-marriage. The issue isn't whether you're straight or gay. The issue is whether you support marriage."
This message strikes directly at the posture of anti-gay forces. In 1996, they overwhelmingly passed—and got President Clinton to sign—the "Defense of Marriage Act," which restricted the applicability of state laws legalizing gay marriage. In this Congress, they've filed the "Marriage Protection Act of 2003," which would bar federal courts from hearing cases related to the 1996 law. Last month, Bush expressed his opposition to gay marriage in a statement proclaiming "Marriage Protection Week." In response to the Massachusetts ruling, he pledged to "defend the sanctity of marriage."
It's an odd claim, since Bush and his allies are the only ones trying to stop anybody from getting married. That's the first point to make in rebutting them. Next, you explain that what you care about isn't sexual orientation but marriage. You allude to the reasons we value marriage: commitment, stability, fidelity, community. Essayists such as Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have explained how these considerations justify gay marriage. But a politician under attack doesn't have time to explain. He needs a few simple words that will get people to stop and think before they slam their minds shut.
Once open, the debate is surprisingly winnable. Opponents of gay marriage will say it's really about homosexuality. But opponents of legal abortion made the same argument—it's really about abortion—and lost. Some anti-gay advocates will say marriage is for procreation. But that position is politically disastrous, alienating singles, infertile couples, and any married person who uses contraception. Other critics will warn of moral chaos. But moral chaos is what marriage prevents. If you want family values, the simplest thing to do is to let people form families.
Many lifestyle liberals, gay and straight, will balk at this emphasis on marriage. Good. That will distinguish proponents of gay marriage from proponents of license—thereby frustrating conservatives who want to conflate the two.
Reading the Massachusetts court's opinion reminded me of a wedding I attended there 12 years ago. I was the best man to one of the grooms. It was a beautiful ceremony, but everyone knew the marriage wasn't legal, and now it's over. I wonder whether the couple might have stayed together if Massachusetts had entrusted them with the rights and responsibilities of marriage. It wouldn't have hurt.