"In 2004 the social question that animated the campaign was gay marriage," recalls former first lady Laura Bush in her new memoir. "Before the election season had unfolded, I had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue. We have, I reminded him, a number of close friends who are gay or whose children are gay. But at that moment I could never have imagined what path this issue would take and where it would lead."
Remember those days? Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief political wingman, said publicly the key to Bush's reelection would be tapping the 4 million evangelical Christians who did not vote in 2000. Oh-so-coincidentally, referendums to ban gay marriage popped up on 13 state ballots. A year earlier, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex matrimony by order of the state Supreme Court. Worry spread across the country that judges in other states might also sanctify homosexual ickiness. A chance to vote to ban it was enough to get some folks into the voting booths (and in his second term, Bush tried to reward/appease this faction by proposing the Federal Marriage Amendment).
A lot has changed since 2004. A pair of men or pair of women can now wed in six states and the District of Columbia. Same-sex marriage recently passed through a Republican-dominated legislature in New York. For the first time, those supporting marriage equality make up the majority — 53 percent in a May Gallup poll. (In 2010, another threshold was crossed when a majority [52 percent] told Gallup homosexuality was not immoral.) Only 33 percent supported gay marriage in 2004 when all of those state measures passed, most by huge margins.
What changed between then and now? How did same-sex marriage go from a fiery controversy that could tilt a presidential campaign to the right to becoming an inevitability that most people seem to accept?
It was in large part because conservatives made it such an issue. In 2004, no prominent Democrat was pushing marriage equality, and only one, liberal, state had legalized it. By inserting same-sex marriage into a red-hot political season, Republicans propelled it into countless TV news segments, blog posts and newspaper pieces. In every year since that first splattering of exposure, support for marriage equality has risen.
When a hot-button issue is foisted on them, those in the sleepy political middle have one central question: How will this affect me? Opponents could never explain how allowing gay couples to marry would impact anyone else's marriage. They answered with non sequiturs about marriage being the bedrock of society or minor details about some gay-friendly school curriculum in a Boston suburb (or a TV spot with a laughable CGI lightning storm). The American people heard them out and decided they weren't making any sense. We have our hangups but, from desegregation to women in the workplace, this country has shown it will give up prejudice and stubbornness in favor of fairness and reason — eventually.
Another recent poll found that 56 percent of Republicans now think the party should drop the issue. In a stunning reversal over the course of seven years, same-sex marriage has become a burden for conservatives.
Bush and his ilk rode the mean-spirited, manipulative attack on a repressed minority for all it was worth, perhaps even pushing the administration to four more catastrophic years. But if Dubya was really out to "protect traditional marriage" — at least for another few years — he would have done better to ignore Karl Rove and listen to his wife.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org