"I'm a liberal Democrat." So began a widely circulated opinion piece by David Blankenhorn appearing in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 19 in support of Proposition 8, an initiative on California's November 4 ballot that would eliminate the marriage rights of same-sex couples recently recognized by the California Supreme Court. The piece is entitled "Protecting Marriage to Protect Children." Blankenhorn's theme is: "It's perfectly natural to be a liberal Democrat but against gay marriage, because I am." Thus, he stakes the credibility of his position -- that marriage by same-sex couples is bad for children -- on his purported status as a "liberal Democrat."
Conservatives applauded Blankenhorn vigorously. A press release sent out Sept. 22 from Christian News Wire emphasized, "What is noteworthy is the source: the author of the Op-Ed piece is a Liberal Democrat, which underscores the broad support for Proposition 8 in order to protect marriage for society, our institutions, and for children in California." Gushed one blogger: "Frankly it's astonishing that a liberal could hold the kind of morality, honesty and insight displayed in this article and still call himself a liberal, but okay."
It is odd indeed when a person claims the mantle of a certain political philosophy while espousing an opinion seemingly at odds with that political philosophy. It makes you wonder: Is this person really who he claims to be?
The vehicle Blankenhorn uses for espousing his opinions on marriage and family values is a think tank he calls the Institute for American Values, of which he is president. In accordance with its status as an untaxed entity, IAV must file a Form 990 financial report annually with the IRS. These filings are available to the public, and you can learn a lot from them. Here is what public records tell us about IAV:
During the 15 years preceding 2006, IAV received nearly $4.5 million in funding from a coterie of ultra-conservative Republican foundations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundation, and the Randolph Foundation. These foundations supply funds for a network of right-wing Republican think tanks that promote a variety of causes such as the elimination of gay marriage, abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research; prayer in public schools; creationism and deregulatory free-market economics.
Fiscal 2006-2007 was a banner year for Blankenhorn's organization. IAV's funding nearly tripled from the previous year -- from $1,366,700 to $3,389,357. (One can only speculate about 2007-2008, for which public records are not yet available.) And IAV has been a lucrative enterprise for Blankenhorn personally. His 2006 salary as the organization's president was $247,500, plus $19,725 in benefits. His wife, Raina Sachs, picked up an additional $50,000 as IAV's part-time Director of Outreach.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Blankenhorn taking millions of dollars for IAV and $317,225 annually for himself and his wife from ultra-conservative Republicans. But it certainly tends to undermine the notion that he's a "liberal Democrat" who also happens to oppose marriage by same-sex couples. What sort of liberal Democrat builds his political forum and his personal fortune on the bedrock of ultra-conservative Republican money?
The appearance of Blankenhorn's op-ed in the peak of campaign season (it also ran in the San Jose Mercury News on Monday) plays into a larger Republican strategy. In recent election cycles, Republicans have used anti-gay marriage ballot measures nationwide as a wedge issue and to rally their conservative base voters to the polls. Eleven states put anti-gay marriage propositions on the ballot during the 2004 presidential election; this year, in addition to California, there are propositions up for a vote in Florida and Arizona. While gay marriage may be less of a wedge issue this campaign season, John McCain arguably needs all the help he can get -- including Blankenhorn's -- to rally a conservative Republican base known to dislike him.
Whatever Blankenhorn's real political stripes are, his core argument -- that parenting by married biological parents of the opposite sex is essential to a child's well-being -- is demonstrably wrong. The world is full of well-adjusted people who were raised outside Blankenhorn's norm for the ideal family. (Not to mention the many maladjusted souls who were raised within that norm.) In order to know that, you don't need to have "spent a year studying the history and anthropology of marriage," as Blankenhorn claims to have done.
But in this case, dissecting his shaky argument is secondary. By emphasizing his views under the banner of "liberals like me" -- by claiming special credibility as a supposedly unconventional opponent of gay marriage -- he makes his op-ed foremost about his political profile, inviting scrutiny of who he claims to be. (One wonders whether the opinion page editors of the L.A. Times bothered with such scrutiny.) Not only does the money trail start to give a pretty clear picture, but so does the public persona of the chair of the Board of Directors for Blankenhorn's think tank, Jean Bethke Elshtain, an appointee to President Bush's Council on Bioethics whom Slate describes as a "conservative intellectual" author.
How ironic that Blankenhorn calls his think tank the Institute for American Values. One of the values my American family taught me is honesty and forthrightness about who we are. That's an American value Blankenhorn seems to have missed out on.