Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Bush plays politics with gay marriage

While expecting to lose the recent Senate vote, the US president still gained support from his most conservative backers

By Richard Stevenson  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Washington


From the beginning, gay marriage has been an issue that US President George W. Bush has tried to finesse.

Under election-year pressure from his fundamentalist political base, Bush endorsed the effort to adopt a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. He recently turned up the volume on the issue, talking about about it in his weekly radio address and calling wavering senators in an attempt to shore up support for the measure as it headed toward a crucial procedural vote.

But after endorsing the measure in February, he would often go weeks without mentioning it in public, suggesting a personal and/or political reticence about pushing it too hard. And when he did raise the topic, he was careful to modulate his message to avoid alienating moderate voters, warning in particular against allowing the issue to become an excuse for gay-bashing.

"What they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do," Bush said during one campaign stop in Pennsylvania, seeking to distinguish between private behavior and giving legal sanction to same-sex marriages.

"This is America. It's a free society. But it doesn't mean we have to redefine traditional marriage," he said.

hedging his bets

By hedging his position, if only a bit, Bush may have insulated himself somewhat from the sting of the defeat the proposed amendment suffered in the Senate.

But the way in which the proposal went down with a whim-per, short of a simple majority much less the two-thirds of the Senate needed for approval, raised questions about whether the White House had fundamentally misjudged the nation's attitude on the issue.

And the vote left even some of Bush's own advisers wondering if his backing of the amendment did not hurt him politically more than it helped by further stoking opposition to him from the left.

"It's a net loss for Republicans politically," said one prominent Republican in Washington who works closely with the White House.

"It does nothing for our base, because they're grumpy about not having it, and it energized a significant portion of their base. I guarantee you that they gay community will give twice as much money and work harder for Kerry now, not so much because they care about marriage per se, but because this effort plays to their fears that we're homophobic," the Republican said.

While polling has generally found that most Americans are opposed to gay marriage, it has also shown that few people see the issue, or the proposal for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being only between a man and a woman, as being a priority for the country.

Polls and focus groups have repeatedly found that the subject barely registers with voters, if it registers at all, at a time when most people are primarily concerned with Iraq, terrorism and jobs.

But wading into the issue was in keeping with the White House's overriding political priority of keeping Bush's base happy and energized, even at the risk of alienating moderate and swing voters who see it as anti-gay.

maneuvering room

It also provided an opportunity for the White House to maneuver Senator John Kerry into a position where it could again accuse him of taking both sides of an issue, the central theme in its effort to portray the challenger as so lacking in conviction that he would be an unreliable leader.

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