John Kerry has to be happy. President Bush's stylistically lackluster performance in the first presidential debate put Kerry right back into the thick of the race, and while Kerry didn't knock Bush out, he certainly put Bush behind the eight ball. Unless President Bush can exceed expectations in the second and third debates, Kerry will hold the advantage as this election goes down to the wire.
Chances are good that President Bush will do a better job in the second debate than he did in the first. In the first debate, Bush scored some clear policy victories over Kerry -- in the debate itself, Kerry flip-flopped on key issues, providing the Bush campaign with material to use against him. The polls following the debate reflected an immediate swing toward Kerry based on style, but it is likely that the immediate effect will dissipate, since Bush still leads Kerry by a broad margin on Iraq, terrorism and leadership.
Debating is about exceeding expectations. Before the first debate, Americans expected President Bush to beat Kerry. But after Kerry exceeded expectations in the first debate, the onus shifted to him for the second debate. Kerry must now win the second debate in decisive fashion, while Bush must only exceed expectations.
With the topics of debate now moving to domestic policy, it's time for President Bush to take out the biggest unused political weapon of this election cycle. It's the elephant in the living room, the most vital domestic issue this side of homeland security. It is, of course, gay marriage.
The attack on marriage undermines the basis for the entire structure of Judeo-Christian values. When gay activists claim that they simply want the same rights accorded to straight couples, they truly ask for basic redefinition of marriage itself -- and for acceptance of homosexuality by the straight community. Gays and lesbians have the same rights as any heterosexual: They can marry someone of the opposite sex. Subjective desire has no place in redefining moral terminology.
The gay lobby contests that marriage has already been weakened by a high divorce rate. True. But destroying the concept of marriage as it has always stood does nothing to rectify that problem. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples is about as effective in fixing marriage as renaming South Central Los Angeles was in reducing crime rates.
The vast majority of Americans agree that traditional marriage should be protected. This is a winning issue for President Bush. A compendium of polls from Maggie Gallagher's Institute for Marriage and Public Policy shows strong support for state constitutional amendments to restrict marriage to male-female, especially in crucial battleground states.
In Michigan, the latest poll by Marketing Resource Group shows 61 percent support for a state constitutional amendment; President Bush is in a virtual dead heat with Kerry in Michigan. In Ohio, another closely fought state, a recent poll by the Columbus Dispatch shows 63 percent support for such an amendment. In Pennsylvania, 55 percent support such an amendment, in New Hampshire, 56 percent. Vast majorities support constitutional amendments in Missouri (and voted for such an amendment 70.6 percent to 29.4 percent), Nevada (where people voted for such an amendment 67.2 percent to 32.8 percent), and Wisconsin (56 percent support such an amendment), as well as Oregon (51 percent), Missouri (59 percent), and West Virginia (58 percent).
The Bush campaign has been hesitant to speak about gay marriage, fearing a "tolerant" backlash. But it's about time that Bush stopped ignoring the elephant in the center of the living room. John Kerry is boxed in on this issue. If he supports gay marriage, his moderate facade falls away. If he actively opposes gay marriage, he risks losing support from his hard-left constituency -- not to mention the fact that Kerry is vulnerable on his record. Kerry's opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act (an act that allows marriage to remain a state issue) means that he can't claim full-fledged support for traditional marriage.
And the issue isn't just a campaign ploy -- it's vital and relevant. With the judicial branch acting to usurp legislative power on this issue, a federal amendment is no longer optional but is a necessity in order to protect marriage. If President Bush talks about traditional values, John Kerry won't be feeling good for long.