Friday, February 27, 2004



Josh Chafetz has the details of the head count in the Senate.

Even so, the real question is whether support for the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) helps or hurts Bush for November. I believe it hurts him.

Candidates who face primary opposition have to appease their ideological base in the primaries, and then move to the center in the summer for the general election. This always carries with it the risk that because of the positions they have to take in the primaries the public will think them too far out of the mainstream, or inconsistent, or both. Incumbent presidents who don't face substantial opposition have the luxury of staying in the center throughout the year, while their opponents must zig zag.

That is not what has happened this year. Following David Kay's revelations that there weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush's poll numbers began to decline. Some Americans who once supported him no longer trusted him. The economy-- and new employment-- did not pick up as quickly as the President hoped it would. With a weak economy, and with growing distrust of the President over the WMD controversy, Bush found himself having to win over his base, even though he faced no opposition. The Mayor of San Francisco's decision to grant licenses to same-sex couples forced his hand. If he wanted to remain the leader of the religious and social conservative wing of his party, he had to exercise leadership and come out in favor of the FMA. In doing so, however, he risked being perceived of as intolerant. And he gave an opening to the Democrats to stake out a position which was much closer to the center of developing public opinion-- that states should decide for themselves what rules they wanted concerning marriage, and that civil unions (as opposed to same-sex marriages) were just fine if some states wanted them. No one could have predicted a year ago that this would become a moderate position on same-sex marriage, but events have outpaced almost everyone's calculations.

If you watch closely, you will note that Kerry and Edwards are trying to come as close to the emerging centrist position on same sex marriage as they can without angering the party faithful. Bush, however, will find it very hard to move much closer to the developing center, because the social and religious conservatives that he needs to court are adamant. That, of course, is the disadvantage that comes when an important constituency of your party cares more about ideology than about winning.

Bush's support for the FMA is not going to be the wedge issue that divides and discomfits his opponents, as flag burning, ACLU membership and Willie Horton were for his father in the disgraceful presidential campaign of 1988. Instead, because the center is moving so rapidly on this issue, the FMA is likely to divide and discomfit his own party.

What will the President do next? He can't run on Iraq or on the economy. The proposed mission to Mars went nowhere, his immigration proposal angered important elements of his conservative base, and his support for the FMA appears to be backfiring. What will he pull out next from his bag of tricks?

Whatever it is, I am quite sure it will be quite unpleasant. One thing we know about the Bush family and their advisors: They don't mind playing rough or playing dirty, as long as somebody else takes the heat and receives the blame.

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