Will the controversial issue of same-sex marriage—which played a role in President Bush’s re-election in 2004—actually cause a Democrat to win the White House in 2008?
Bush’s victory over Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) occurred just two weeks before the first anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, a ruling mandating that the state grant all rights, benefits, privileges and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples. The Goodridge ruling was arguably the third most prominent issue in the 2004 presidential contest (the others being the War on Terror and the economy). Millions of “values voters,” horrified by the judicial activism of the SJC, embraced Bush, who denounced the ruling and reaffirmed marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and rejected Kerry, whose criticisms of the ruling seemed half-hearted at best.
However, gay marriage could cause problems for the Republicans this time around—particularly if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney receives the GOP nomination. While Romney strongly criticized the Goodridge ruling and endorsed efforts to have the ruling democratically nullified through a pro-traditional marriage ballot initiative, he has come under fire from conservative activists who believe that he in fact facilitated the beginning of same-sex marriage in the Bay State.
These activists assert that, since there was never actually a change in Massachusetts law regarding the definition of marriage, Romney effectively created gay marriage by instructing local officials to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the ruling. According to these activists, Romney is a fraud, a Massachusetts liberal Republican in conservative clothing.
A fair examination of Romney’s activities in the aftermath of the Goodridge case would lead one to conclude that these activists are in error. The Goodridge ruling was not, in any way, shape, manner or form, ambiguous about the responsibilities of state government with regard to this issue. Under no circumstances could same-sex couples be denied the rights of marriage; the court decreed that any denial of marital rights to same-sex couples constituted a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution. Thus, Romney was forced to order the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples by virtue of the Goodridge ruling. Much like the Boston School Committee in 1974—which was compelled by a federal court order to bus children away from their neighborhood schools for the putative purpose of desegregation—Romney had no choice.
However, the activists have not withdrawn their charge—and it is a guarantee that, if Romney receives the nomination, the mainstream press will give these activists front-page, top-story coverage, to sell the idea that Romney is a closet left-winger and thus weaken Republican base turnout on Election Day. The press will downplay the fact that Romney’s post-Goodridge actions were not voluntary, and portray Romney as, in essence, a Republican version of the 2004 Kerry.
The media love nothing more than the sight of depressed, dispirited social conservatives abandoning their support of the GOP. The apathy of the social right played a critical role in the rise of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Nancy Pelosi in 2006. The Fourth Estate believes that the GOP used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to destroy the candidacy of their preferred candidate, Kerry. They would love to see a Republican being undone by the same controversy.
Romney must emphasize, day in and day out, that the only entity responsible for the creation of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was the state’s highest court, and that he had no option but to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. If he doesn’t make clear that his hands were forced, he’ll look back upon this campaign with remorse.