Thursday, July 03, 2003

Bush Unsure Ban on Gay Unions Is Needed

Backing Standard Marriage, President Sidesteps Question
By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2003; Page A02

President Bush yesterday reaffirmed his belief that "marriage is between a man and a woman," but he sidestepped the question of a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay unions -- reflecting the cautious approach the White House is taking to a potentially explosive public debate.

Last week's Supreme Court decision to strike down the nation's remaining anti-sodomy laws has left some conservatives convinced that so-called "defense of marriage" laws prohibiting gay marriage cannot survive future court challenges. As a result, a move to amend the Constitution to define marriage as applying only to male-female couples has rapidly picked up strength. Last Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he supports such an amendment.

In an exchange with reporters, Bush said he is waiting for a legal analysis of the court's decision. "I don't know if it's necessary yet," he said of a constitutional amendment. "Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer echoed that position in his daily briefing. "This is a matter for lawyers to assess," he said, "and I don't know that there is any clear assessment that anybody has at this point about the legal ramifications of a just-made decision."

Bush is stepping gingerly on an issue that could inflame his conservative base if he equivocates, or turn off live-and-let-live swing voters if he takes a stand that smacks of intolerance. He is also aware, one adviser said, that a constitutional amendment is extremely hard to win -- it must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the states.

As one Capitol Hill Republican described it: "Bush is trying to defend the traditional idea of marriage without getting into the realm of gay-bashing."

Inside Bush's campaign strategy meetings, the sudden emergence of the issue has been surprising and unwelcome, one participant said. Although Bush would have a hard time winning an election in the gay community, his administration has taken steps to avoid being seen as antagonistic of gays. Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne Cheney, who have a lesbian daughter, have expressed support for equal rights for gays. Without fanfare, the administration has appointed about 20 openly gay officials to government positions, according to the Texas Triangle, a gay newspaper.

Republicans have been thinking for some time that the gay marriage issue would enter the 2004 presidential election from stage left, through the rising prominence in the Democratic field of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. He signed the country's first law legalizing "civil unions" for gays, and it shows signs of becoming a for-or-against issue in the Democratic primaries. GOP strategists believe Democrats will alienate moderate voters if their nominee is supportive of gay marriage.

Having the issue boil up on the right, however, could be a problem for Bush.

"The president does not want to go back to the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s," one Republican strategist said. "He remembers what happened to his father in 1992," when Patrick J. Buchanan set the tone of the GOP convention by declaring "there is a religious war going on in our country," and urging Republicans to fight it "block by block . . . [to] take back our culture, and take back our country."

Instead, the strategist said, Bush would prefer to "culturally marginalize the Democrats, without reopening the culture war."

A longtime Bush friend was more forceful. "This is just not an issue we want to talk about," he said. "It plays to a negative stereotype of Republicans as sex-obsessed and narrow-minded. Swing voters -- and the libertarian elements in the Republican Party -- will not enjoy a debate about a constitutional amendment on gay marriage."

But some leading social conservatives believe the issue cannot be dodged. Gary Bauer, who ran for president in 2000 on a religious conservative platform, said in an interview yesterday: "Unless the president's lawyers are from Mars, they will tell him that there is no longer a legislative bar to same-sex marriage. At that point, it will not be possible for the administration to remain neutral as this debate heats up. I don't think they should even try to be cute about it."

The president of the conservative Family Research Council, Ken Connor, was less categorical. He said Bush's position so far is "prudential." But he too predicted that Bush will have to take sides. "All elected officials . . . are going to be forced to express their viewpoints on the meaning of marriage and the role of heterosexual marriage in our society," Connor said.