As George Bush’s poll numbers began seriously dwindling, Karl Rove and the White House political strategists decided to reach into their bag of tricks and come up with a good old staple of reactionary politics: homophobia.
The decision to scapegoat gay and lesbian Americans was poll-driven by an antigay backlash that gathered steam in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision, in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down laws making gay sex between consenting adults illegal–the so-called sodomy laws. The backlash first surfaced in a July 25-27 Gallup poll. It showed that support for legalizing gay sex had plummeted a dramatic twelve points, to only 48 percent, down from a comfortable 60 percent in favor of legalization in Gallup’s May survey. Those saying “homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle” also slalomed down from 54 to 46 percent; and support for same-sex civil unions dropped from 49 to 40 percent. Two weeks later, a Washington Post poll showed that support for gay civil unions had dropped three points lower than in Gallup’s. Since then, five other national polls have confirmed the antigay trend.
Just two days after Gallup released its poll showing the backlash, Bush unexpectedly used a Rose Garden press conference to announce that he’d assigned lawyers to come up with a plan to stop gay marriage. Bush and the Republicans had been under enormous pressure from the Christian right and social conservatives–including National Review and The Weekly Standard–to support a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, which would ban recognition of any form of marriage between two persons of the same gender. (The FMA would also forbid giving same-sex couples the “legal incidents” of marriage, thus vitiating the civil-union law in Vermont and any other state that followed suit.)
The GOP had already signaled it would respond to that pressure and use gay marriage as a wedge issue against the Democrats in the Congressional elections when, not long before Bush’s Rose Garden declaration, Senate Republican majority leader Bill Frist declared on This Week in June that he would “absolutely” support the FMA. Frist’s declaration was no go-it-aloner’s gaffe: It was made “with no-fingerprints support from the White House,” as Howard Fineman and Debra Rosenberg reported in Newsweek.
Since then, the Republicans have ratcheted up their anti-gay marriage crusade. On July 29 the Senate Republican Policy Committee adopted a twelve-page policy paper declaring that gay marriage was a “threat” to the established social order. Then, Senate Judiciary subcommittee chairman John Cornyn of Texas–declaring that “we must do whatever it takes” to stop same-sex unions–held formal hearings on the gay marriage issue on September 4 (in the House, where the FMA already has eighty-nine co-sponsors, similar hearings are expected this fall). These hearings are being held even though Congress, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, in 1996 passed the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law (the DOMA denies federal recognition and benefits to same-sex marriages and allows states to deny recognition of such unions performed in other states). However, Cornyn’s staff produced a gaggle of witnesses echoing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which he warned that the majority’s ruling would dismantle “the structure…that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions.” Among those Cornyn called to testify, for example, was former Texas solicitor general Gregory Coleman, who argued that “it is likely” that the US Supreme Court will hold DOMA unconstitutional in the near future. (Another GOP witness, syndicated Murdoch columnist Maggie Gallagher, went so far as to write that “polygamy is not worse than gay marriage, it is better”!) Indeed, many legal scholars have argued forcefully that the federal DOMA violates the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution, which provides that states cannot ignore other states’ proceedings but must recognize them and put them into effect. In that context, all the electorally motivated demagogy coming out of the Rose Garden and the Cornyn hearings creates momentum behind the proposed antigay constitutional amendment.