Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Finish the fight

Liberal Oasis makes a point about the MA gay marriage ruling: while many may be opposed to the idea (59% is the number that a lot of media drones are throwing around), a significant portion of that opposition are just as uncomfortable with politicians who try to make hay out of the issue.

In sum, a close look at the polling does not indicate a mass antipathy to gay unions, but a “squishy” segment of the population that gives contradictory responses depending on the wording of the question.

The squishy segment was quite evident in this Gallup poll from Sept.:

Do you think gay or lesbian couples should or should not be allowed all the same legal rights as married couples in every state, or does it not matter to you?

Should – 32%
Should not – 35%
Doesn’t matter – 32%

Focus groups also show an ambivalence. A recent W. Post piece reported:

Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, has been conducting focus groups on the subject for the Human Rights Campaign…

…he finds that middle-of-the-road voters "would prefer to talk about almost any other subject."

That "squishy middle" are people who are just plain uncomfortable talking about the subject either for or against. They could easily swing either way (pun unintended) in the coming election depending on how the parties play the issue. Now, undoubtedly, the Republicans will try to use it as a wedge. Hell, some of them are openly boasting that they will do so. What will really matter is how the Democrats respond to it.

If they run away from the issue then they will allow the Republicans to define the issue as "liberal elitist judges forcing gay marriage down the throats of America". The Democrats, despite their avoidance of the issue, will be closely associated with this spin and will suffer for it electorally.

However, if they directly confront the issue they might be able to persuade that "squishy middle" that it is the Republicans who are forcing them to deal with an issue that they would rather not have anything to do with. In other words, as LO points out, there is a significant chance for a serious backlash against the GOP and especially Bush.

The Democrats should deal with this issue on two fronts:

  1. They should make it clear that it is civil rights, not marriage, that is the issue and they should put a human face on this issue as quickly as possible. They should find homosexual couples who have had to deal with the inequities of the legal system (e.g., a man who was denied access to his partner at the hospital by relatives who didn't approve of their lifestyle, etc.) and get them out in the public telling their story. They should make it clear to people exactly what this issue is about. Not an attempt to force everyone's churches to perform gay marriages but an attempt to allow long-term homosexual couples to have some of the same measure of protection that long-term heterosexual couples enjoy. Appeal to people's basic sense of fairness.
  2. Make it clear that it is the Republicans who are making this an issue and that they are the ones who are trying to divide the country for partisan political purposes. Quotes from GOP operatives who react with glee at the prospect would be useful ammo in this fight. That "squishy middle" should be persuaded that it is Bush and the Republicans who are forcing them to deal with this uncomfortable issue.

Whatever strategy that is ultimately used, the single worst thing the Democrats can do is to run away from it. They will gain no political benefit from it and they will be rightly perceived as cowards in the face of an important battle. Leadership is not simply a matter of dealing with the issues you want to deal with. Leadership also involves dealing with issues you would just rather not have anything to do with.

I personally think Howard Dean is uniquely positioned to take on this battle because he has done it before so he knows exactly what it involves. He also is a good spokesman for the "squishy middle" because he himself has said that he is uncomfortable with the issue but, when it came time to make the decision on what to do he just couldn't in good conscience sell out a whole segment of the population for simple political expediency.

That's real leadership: doing something even when the thing you are doing is something you are not comfortable doing but it is something that you know needs to be done.

One final comment: don't be fooled into thinking that I think this will be an easy battle. It will not. We could lose it. But it is a battle that we can no longer avoid. We didn't start this fight, but we can finish it.


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