That was the procedure back before Roe v. Wade: Abortion was or was not permitted according as state legislatures decided. Authority on the matter was wrested from the states by the Supreme Court. And it is exactly that looming omnipresence that the voters of Missouri anticipated in their vote on Tuesday.
The timing wasn't planned that way, but the very next day after Missouri spoke out on the matter, a Superior Court judge in the state of Washington spoke up on the other side. The judge's language was almost identical to that of the court in Massachusetts that set off the whole argument. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state constitution's equal-protection and due-process provisions granted conjugal rights to gays, and the bells tolled, as they did in San Francisco under the patronage of rump political leaders who sought to prescind the law on the question.
The Democratic leadership is understandably concerned about the political implications of the Missouri vote. President Bush months ago took the controversy in hand when he called for a constitutional amendment. Not an amendment to ban gay marriage, but one to reserve authority on the question to the states, in order to avoid another co-optation by the Supreme Court, invalidating, now, the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Democrats' fear is that the Republican Party's association with the defense of normal marriage will influence voters who would otherwise go Democratic, and cause them to switch to the GOP in the November election. Between now and November, at least nine states are expected to canvass their voters on gay marriage. At least some of these states are likely to re-register Missouri's sentiments.
President Bush will almost certainly stay out of the way of the controversy between now and the GOP convention. It would appear opportunistic if he scheduled a fireworks display in St. Louis to celebrate Tuesday's vote. By the same token, John Kerry is not going to look for an early opportunity to denounce the voters of Missouri as reactionaries who believe that Adam and Eve set an important precedent.
The divide in the thinking on the question by contemporary Americans was adroitly formulated by a reflective campaign manager for gay marriage. Jeff Wunrow said he was busy digesting what had happened. "The only thing I think I've learned is to be careful about trusting your instincts. I learned that I don't think I inherently know much about average voters in Missouri. Every message I thought made sense didn't resonate. I guess what it says is that seven out of 10 people here think they know better how I should live my life than I do."
The voters of Missouri aren't saying that. They are seeking to reinforce two traditions, one social, one political. They are defending an institution that is incoherent if attempted -- in the same name -- by persons of the same sex. That, and the tradition that certain matters are decided not by courts but by political bodies. Leaving the question to the individual states to decide is a broad acknowledgment of political divisions of authority, and is not to be taken as "gay bashing."
Here Mr. Bush could say something correct and conciliatory. He does not have far to go in his intimate political family to affirm the individual rights of one of his vice president's children, who leads life as a lesbian, and whose rights must be protected. But this is not to endorse the inherent dissimulation that "marriage" between two members of the same sex attempts. It is unlikely that candidate John Kerry will publicly dispute the vote in Missouri.