A Democratic Strategy on Gay Marriage
by Eric Jaye
Last year the Democrats had numerous opportunities to stand on principle — and in doing so show they had the courage to stand for something. No opportunity was greater than the raging debate over gay marriage.
Facing an evenly divided electorate, Republican strategists surmised that victory in 2004 lay in driving turnout among their base voters. That’s why they placed attacks on gay marriage on state ballots in swing states. They believed that such a debate would drive turnout, particularly among low-turnout Christian evangelical voters.
What did the Democrats do? By and large they ducked, with poll-crafted drivel that made them seem like typical politicians, not courageous leaders.
Most voters do not yet support gay marriage – although support for equal matrimonial rights has risen dramatically in the past decade. Polls show a sharp generational divide, with the majority of voters under 40 in support of gay marriage and the majority of voters over 60 strongly opposed.
But in this day and age, most swing voters reserve more venom for vacillating politicians than they do for two gay people deciding to adopt the bourgeois convention of lifetime commitment and matrimony.
It is this disdain for vacillating politicians that allows President George Bush to take so many controversial stands yet still win elections for himself and his party. It’s called leadership and voters reward it.
On a woman’s right to choice, Iraq, environmental protection, outsourcing and Social Security – Bush is ‘wrong’ from a pollsters’ perspective. Yet, why does he still seem so right to so many voters?
Bush wins by being “wrong” because his controversial positions resonate as authentic. American voters don’t agree with him on key issues — but they tend to believe he “stands up for what he believes.” In a political landscape in which character matters more than ideology, Bush wins by seeming “real” to voters.
So while Bush seems authentic at the very moment he is pursuing a political ploy to excite his right-wing base – Democrats seem weak and untrustworthy – not just to their base supporters, but to the broad mass of swing voters.
With a few exceptions, most Democrats simply lack credibility when they say they oppose gay marriage. We have the honor of belonging to a party that has been on the forefront of the civil rights movement for more than 50 years. Most voters, in most states, expect us to stand for civil rights – even when these very same voters are taking a go-slow approach.
So who do we think we are fooling when we mumble finely nuanced positions on gay marriage? The truth is we are only fooling ourselves.
We have now survived an entire generation of poll-tested politicians and incremental politics. Finely crafted “agreement” messages, once an innovation, are now an invitation to ridicule. Not just late at night on television, but at almost any hour, we can all enjoy a good laugh at the expense of a politician who is merely reading from a poll-tested script.
So what’s the right answer when Democrats are asked, “Do you support gay marriage?” The right answer, in almost every case, is the truth. And in most cases, the truth is “Yes.”
First and foremost – by saying “Yes” we are standing for something, even when the majority of voters don’t yet support our position. And telling the truth makes us sound like real people, not like robo politicians. But more than this – by saying “Yes” we can seize political terrain that allows us to drive the debate, not duck it.
And we are finding that when we take the offensive on the issue of gay rights and gay marriage, we can make real progress. At the very least, we have a fighting chance when we stop ducking the issue of gay rights and start debating it with clear and concise language.
Along with a team of top-notch consultants, we worked on the successful campaign in 2004 to repeal Article 12 of the Cincinnati City Charter, which allowed discrimination against lesbian and gays. Just this month we helped defeat the Topeka City Question in Topeka, Kansas that would have allowed discrimination against gays. Both campaigns were played out in the context over the debate on gay marriage.
Last year, as former consultants to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, we were closely involved in presenting the “winter of love” gay marriages to the public. We were also part of the unsuccessful effort in Oregon in 2004 to defeat the attack on gay marriage.
We took away from those successes, and that failure, the belief that when it comes to gay marriage the simple truth is better than a complicated lie.
But more than that – in the long run we can’t win if we don’t debate. And let’s not fool ourselves, this debate is not going away. The Republicans put it on the agenda, and they will keep it there, particularly so long as we refuse to even articulate our own position.
Cautious Democrats should face the fact that no position on gay marriage is the weakest possible stance. Silence is read as support for gay marriage. And your silence is seen as political at best, cowardice at worst. As a party, we might not have chosen this fight. But it is here. Unilateral surrender is not a workable strategy.
And to my fellow consultants I would offer this hard-learned lesson. Anti-gay marriage amendments are being fought on the basis of gay marriage — not some “hidden flaw” or “costly consequence.” These measures are not analogous to some down-ballot initiative that we can define. Voters know what they are about — gay marriage.
In California, we found during the San Francisco gay marriage insurrection that support for gay marriage increased slightly across the state, and support for civil unions increased dramatically, after we captured the airwaves with images of couples who were absolutely unremarkable in any way other than in their desire to profess life-long love and responsibility for each other.
First in Cincinnati, and then in Topeka, we won campaigns against discrimination in part by seizing the language of morality, rather than ceding it to our opponents.
We crafted mail pieces entitled “Not Just on Sunday,” and “Daily Bread,” that took up the language of the Lord’s Prayer in defense of tolerance and equal rights every day.
We didn’t hide from the issue. We didn’t run from the moral debate. We embraced it – and won. Democrats around the country have nothing to lose, and so much to gain, from doing likewise.