Same sex, opposite impact

Marriage equality always seemed a losing issue for the left. That's all changed. Just ask Ken Mehlman

Topics: Gay Marriage, Ken Mehlman, Republican Party, Editor's Picks,

Same sex, opposite impactRep. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, an openly gay member of the Maryland General Assembly, holds Natalie Vincent, 10 months, the daughter of a member of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's staff, after O'Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act on Thursday.

As Maryland and Washington join six other states in approving same-sex marriage, it’s clear that the era of politicians exploiting the issue for political game appears over. Just ask former Republican strategist Ken Mehlman, the man who managed George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, noted for its aggressive anti-gay marriage stance.

“If you look at attitudes today and where they are headed, it’s clear to me that supporting equal rights, including the rights to civil marriage, is a net positive for winning elections, as well as the right thing to do,” Mehlman said in an interview. “By contrast, opposing equal rights is a net negative that gets problematic to more voters each year.”

Few political figures in contemporary politics embody America’s transformation on same-sex marriage as much as Mehlman. After years of whisper campaigns about his sexual orientation, as well as personal criticism for managing Bush’s reelection, Mehlman announced in 2010 that he is gay; since then, despite taking flak from both right and left, he has fought on behalf of equality.

When I asked Mehlman, a partner at a New York private equity firm, to handicap gay marriage as a state and national political-electoral issue today, he said: “Most polls now show that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. What you see in Maryland and Washington, and states like New York earlier, is a reflection of politicians representing their constituents.”

As for his role in the 2004 Bush campaign and its exploitation of marital politics, Mehlman is  candid — and remorseful.

“At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort,” he says. “As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I’ll do my part to be helpful.”

Mehlman’s personal story reflects a national trend.

“The nation has transformed since 2004,” agrees E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and author of “What Is Marriage For?

“Marriage equality advocates have so much more support now than in 2004 that running anti-gay referendums, like the Republicans did in 2004, would now have the reverse effect of bringing out more Democrats and straight supporters of gay rights,” she said. Graff, also a contributing editor at the American Prospect, laments that the battle to undo many of those 2004 referendums barring recognition of same-sex marriage “will not be any fun.” But she firmly believes “Americans aren’t shocked anymore at the idea that two women or two men want to marry.” After the initial backlash, rapid changes in public opinion mean that same-sex marriage “is just not as much of an issue today.”

It’s incredible progress in just eight short years. Actually, let’s make that 16 years.

In case self-congratulatory liberals have forgotten, in an effort to appeal to religious conservatives during his 1996 reelection bid, Democrat Bill Clinton ran radio ads touting his support for the Defense of Marriage Act. Surely few liberals have forgotten that, in an effort to appeal to religious conservatives during his own 2004 reelection bid, Republican George W. Bush supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and state referendums that would do the same.

It’s unclear whether Clinton’s support of DOMA helped or hurt him in 1996. As for 2004, subsequent analyses of the election results that year revealed two things: that turnout in the 11 states with ballot measures banning same-sex marriage was no higher than in the 39 without them. Contrary to one political myth, the presence of these referendums likely had no effect on the outcome of the Bush-Kerry presidential contest. But this we do know: Clinton advisor Dick Morris and Bush guru Karl Rove obviously believed their bosses’ anti-gay postures met the Hippocratic electoral standard — that is, their positions would do no harm to either president’s reelection chances.

This year, how much attention marital politics attracts during the general election may largely hinge upon whom the Republicans nominate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, says that although he personally opposes same-sex marriage, from a federalist standpoint he approves of the way politicians are using public ballot measures to give voters, rather than courts, the power to decide the issue in each state. Ron Paul’s view is similar to Gingrich’s.

Rick Santorum, meanwhile, remains firmly opposed, and is practiced in the dark art of depicting anything other than heterosexual, monogamous marriage as an immoral affront to divine design. As for beleaguered front-runner Mitt Romney, his position is just as flip-floppy as it is on so many other issues: He was for same-sex marriage as Massachusetts governor (issuing at least 189 special licenses to gay couples) before he was against it.

But Mehlman is encouraged by changes within his party, especially the support among younger Republicans for marital equality and related positions. In 2011, Mehlman personally lobbied 13 New York state Republican legislators to help pass the state’s same-sex marriage law, and did the same with 10 Republican U.S. senators during the congressional battle to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Although he is still a loyal Republican — he recently contributed to a fundraiser for House Speaker John Boehner, a gay marriage opponent — a month ago Mehlman published an Op-Ed in the conservative Manchester Union-Leader in which he explained to conservatives and Republicans why supporting same-sex marriage venerates their beliefs not only in individual and economic freedoms, but personal responsibility and family values.

Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson says that, although he realizes Americans will have important economic concerns on their minds during this presidential election, he expects that “from time to time” marriage equality will surface as an issue throughout the year. “All of the Republican nominees have, to varying degrees, pandered to their party’s base — a base that’s out of touch with many Republicans,” Wolfson told me. He cited a July 2011 national polling memo co-authored by Obama pollster Joel Benenson and former Bush pollster Jan van Lohuizen that confirms the dramatic, recent shift toward public acceptance, if not approval, for same-sex marriage.

As for the 2012 Democratic nominee, President Obama’s record on same-sex marriage is “evolving” but still mixed. He and his White House are already feeling pressure from marriage equality advocates, the Democratic Party and even his own campaign leadership to endorse marital equality as part of the Democrats’ 2012 national party platform. “We have strongly urged the president to complete his journey — his evolution, as he puts it — on the freedom to marry,” says Wolfson, “because it’s not just the right thing to do, but the right thing to do politically.”

Progress toward nationalizing same-sex marriage is hardly linear. For every step forward there is often a half-step backward. The passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 was a crushing blow to the movement, and although the Court of Appeals’ 9th Circuit recently invalidated Proposition 8’s same-sex marriage ban and a new poll this week reveals a significant jump in approval for same-sex marriage in the state, the popular vote defeat in an otherwise liberal state that Obama won comfortably still stings. There are also reports this week about a serious effort to revoke the same-sex marriage law in New Hampshire, where Republicans regained control of the Legislature in 2010.

But as the 2012 general election approaches — and despite Santorum’s earnest attempts to reinvigorate culture war politics — the reality is that same-sex marriage fear-mongering and other forms of electoral gay-baiting no longer work as wedge issues the way they used do. DADT is dead, and thanks to a court ruling this week penned by a Bush-appointed federal judge, DOMA is on the ropes, too. If not already, soon enough same-sex marriage will act as a wedge issue that works against conservatives, Republicans and opponents of marital equality.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>