A week after the New Jersey Supreme Court injected new energy into the gay marriage issue, how is it playing out in Peoria?
President Bush came out swinging on Monday: "For decades, activist judges have tried to redefine America by court order," Bush said. "Just this last week in New Jersey, another activist court issued a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage. We believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and should be defended." According to the Associated Press, "the line earned Bush by far his most sustained applause at a rally of 5,000 people aimed at boosting former GOP Rep. Max Burns' effort to unseat a Democratic incumbent. In this conservative rural corner of eastern Georgia, even children jumped to their feet alongside their parents to cheer and clap for nearly 30 seconds -- a near-eternity in political speechmaking." Bush has added it to his repertoire of taxes and terrorism as the issues that will move GOP voters at the polls this November.
In New Jersey, in a tight race for U.S. Senate, Republican Tom Kean immediately endorsed a state constitutional amendment, while Democrat Bobby Menendez weakly punted: Gay marriage is now "up to the legislature to decide" was all he said, according to The New York Times.
If the Democrats do take control of the Senate, it will be in part because of candidates like Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, who (according to the National Journal) shot out of the box to issue this statement: "I do not support the decision today reached by the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I oppose gay marriage, and have voted twice in Congress to amend the United States Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. This November there's a referendum on the Tennessee ballot to ban same-sex marriage -- I am voting for it."
Even Sen. Hillary Clinton continues to say she opposes gay marriage, although she hints before gay groups that support her campaign that her position may be "evolving."
The great exception to this Democratic dance away from the issue is New York's gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, who in an apparent profile of political courage is practically the only major Democratic candidate to endorse gay marriage. (Long Island Newsday reported on Halloween that Spitzer plans to introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage -- but that the bill won't be a "top priority.") But Eliot Spitzer has a unique problem for a blue state Democrat: As attorney general of the state of New York, he is more responsible than any other elected official for the fact that New York's high court rejected the idea.
What's the difference between the New York high court (which ruled there is not a right to gay marriage) and the New Jersey Supreme Court (which ordered the state legislature to create either gay marriage or its full equivalent)? In New Jersey, as the court itself noted, the state (read: attorney general) refused to offer any defense of marriage beyond the vague idea of "tradition." In New York, by contrast, the state (read: Eliot Spitzer) argued that marriage really does have something to do with encouraging men and women to have and raise their children together.
Eliot Spitzer's responsible defense of New York marriage laws, in other words, makes him a natural target for the outrage of gay groups who believe they have a civil right to impose gay marriage against the will of the people. Spitzer's swift embrace of legislative gay marriage (however unlikely at this point) has blunted that potentially costly defection.
If you want to know how gay marriage plays out as a political issue, look to Nov. 7. If the Republicans still control the Senate, the New Jersey court ruling will be an important part of the reason why.