The 2006 midterm elections may be over, but they are worth taking another look at before we become wedded to the wrong conclusions.
Marriage was an issue on the ballot in eight states and was a winning issue in all but one. Voters in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Colorado, South Dakota and Idaho all voted to protect marriage.
Although some prominent voices have highlighted marriage as a distraction issue that hurt Republicans in the long run, the GOP would be wise not to rush to divorce court.
Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation says: "The recent elections confirm a strong nationwide consensus that favors protecting marriage and opposes its judicial redefinition. The challenge is to translate that political consensus into a constitutional consensus in the face of increased congressional intransigence. The best way to do that is to make sure marriage is not only an issue but also a strategic component in the 2008 electoral map, which now includes the fact that over half of the states have protected marriage in their constitutions."
An embrace of the marriage-protection issue on the right could put Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a good position for the 2008 presidential primaries. As Republican governor of that liberal northeastern state, he's tried pushing back against gay marriage, in the one state where it has -- thanks to the courts -- become legal.
As his term was winding down post-Election Day, the state legislature there recessed a long-promised constitutional convention until Jan. 2, the last day of the legislative session.
At a subsequent marriage-protection rally on the Massachusetts statehouse steps, Gov. Romney voiced his outrage at legislative complicity in judicial tyranny. He said, "Last week, 109 legislators decided to reject the law, abandon the Constitution, and violate their oath of office. For the Constitution plainly states that when a qualified petition is placed before them, the legislature 'shall' vote. It does not say may vote, or vote if its procedures permit a vote, or vote if there are enough of the members in attendance. It says 'shall' vote."
He continued, "A decision not to vote is a decision to usurp the Constitution, to abandon democracy and substitute a form of what this nation's founders called tyranny, that is, the imposition of the will of those in power, on the people."
In contrast, the incoming Democratic governor, formerly an official in the Bill Clinton administration, has said, "I think the (high court) got it right." Gov.-elect Deval Patrick continued, ''I think all they did was affirm the principle that people come before their government as equals."
At the pre-Thanksgiving week rally in Boston, gay-marriage proponents booed as the Pledge of Allegiance was said and "God Bless America" was sung. It was an appropriate scene. As Maggie Gallagher recently put it on her marriagedebate.com blog: "They want their rights, do they care about yours?" In Massachusetts, the issue of gay marriage has not only been about the marriage issue itself, but also about issues like religious liberties: Can a Catholic group refuse to place children with a gay couple?
And whether he finds himself about to move into the White House two years from now, Romney's already contributed a great deal to the debate over marriage in America with the tone of his principled rhetoric. At a recent evangelical rally, the Mormon took back some of the left's monopoly on "the children." He said, "The price of same-sex marriage is paid by children. Our fight for marriage, then, should focus on the needs of children, not the rights of adults. In fact, as Americans, I believe that we should show an outpouring of respect and tolerance for all people, regardless of their differences or their different choices. We must vigorously reject discrimination and bigotry. We are all God's children. He abhors none of us."
Gay marriage isn't an issue most like to have to talk about. Any sense that people are being deprived rights rightfully makes many squeamish. But marriage is fundamentally what it is -- between a man and a woman. As Romney put it in a letter to U.S. senators this summer as they were taking up a federal marriage amendment: "Americans are tolerant, generous, and kind people. We all oppose bigotry and disparagement, and we all wish to avoid hurtful disregard of the feelings of others. But the debate over same-sex marriage is not a debate over tolerance. It is a debate about the purpose of the institution of marriage."
If conservatives can articulate that -- something kinder and gentler than the caricature of gay-marriage opponents -- we may just get somewhere. It's a pretty decent proposal for Republicans.