One problem with coalitions in power is that the longer they stay in, and the thinner their majority, the more carefully they have to balance between satisfying the rabid base and reaching out to the uneasy moderates. A look at the speaker lineup for next month's Republican convention shows Karl Rove's nod to the latter imperative: non-reactionaries (it really is too much of a stretch to call them moderates) Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani will carry a message of reform and tolerance to the country via TV cameras. The DeLays, Santorums and the rest of what Lee Atwater once called "the extra-chromosome crowd" will remain off-camera.
But not to worry: Rove has another trick up his sleeve to rally the "faithful": the anti-gay Hate Amendment.
In interviews, conservative leaders said they had complained to the White House that the campaign was blocking opponents of gay marriage from prime-time speaking slots at the Republican National Convention.
"The Republicans have got some explaining to do," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group, noting that several of the speakers at the convention have come out against the amendment. "Social conservatives are not happy."
Mr. Bush's conservative base clearly supports the amendment, but polls have shown that while a majority of undecided voters oppose gay marriage, there is little enthusiasm among them for amending the Constitution to ban it.
Some analysts suggested that might account for the tentativeness with which the White House has approached this issue this year, as it seeks to turn out the evangelical voters that advisers have described as critical to Mr. Bush's re-election without alienating the undecided voters who are the central focus of both campaigns.
The Senate will take up this farcical non-issue this week, and the Republicans' admitted strategy is to get Kerry and Edwards on record voting against the Amendment. Rove is betting, probably correctly, that this aggressive move on gay marriage will do much more to fire up the haters than it will to alienate the suburban moderates who are more concerned, for some weird reason, with the economy and war in Iraq than whether we can write bigotry into the Constitution. Besides, he's got Ah-nuld, McCain and Rudy--none of whom support the amendment, but none of whom are likely to use their prime-time platform to talk about it either--to reassure the voters that the mouth-breathers off camera don't have any real power, and even if they do the tax breaks will keep coming.
Not that Kerry and Edwards are particularly admirable on this issue either. Both claim to be "against" gay marriage, but see it as an issue for the states to judge on. Setting aside the obvious inconsistency with their defense of abortion rights, this makes no sense on its face; marriage rights are designed to be portable from state to state. This really looks and smells like Bigotry Lite, and it's more egregious for the strong likelihood that neither of these guys really has a problem with gay marriage at all.
This issue, like so many others, cries out for the principled leadership we lost when Paul Wellstone's plane crashed on that black day in October 2002.