Running In Front of the Wedge

Democrats are hungry to win this year. That’s the message pounded home by pundits as they follow each primary contest won by a resurrected Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner.

Primary voters adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq have pulled the lever for Kerry despite his vote for the war resolution. Labor voters concerned about foreign competition have looked beyond his support of NAFTA. Kerry, a Senate veteran with a war hero’s pedigree, appears to Democrats and the media as a potential winner, and the impatience among party leaders for the electorate to coalesce around him in the greater cause of defeating George W. Bush has become palpable.

It is in that context that the reaffirmation last week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court of its November same-sex marriage ruling has set off alarms among Democrats.

Like the other leading Democratic contenders, Kerry has said he does not support same-sex marriage, but he also voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and opposes a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage solely as the union of a man and a woman.

Even before the Massachusetts Legislature began considering a similar amendment to its Constitution, Kerry’s straddle was hard to maintain. Under close questioning from Sam Donaldson at a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign last summer, he had trouble explaining his support for civil unions but opposition to marriage; he finally cited the need “to respect the current cultural, historical, religious perception,” not an answer that paid much heed to traditional Democratic support for the separation of church and state.

The historic meeting of the Massachusetts Legislature this week presents a quandary––Will Kerry follow the logic of his position on the federal amendment, and risk reinforcing Bush’s efforts to paint him as just another Massachusetts liberal like Michael Dukakis? Some commentators and politicians sympathetic to Kerry don’t think he should have to confront this political dilemma. Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, a reliable lefty on “The McLaughlin Group,” said the Massachusetts court ruling “made the perfect the enemy of the good,” and warned of “disastrous consequences for the Democrats in November,” and of the “danger of the courts leading society in a direction it is not ready to go.”

Barney Frank, the out gay U.S. representative from Massachusetts and ardent Kerry supporter, also thinks Kerry should get a pass on this, explaining that he did not have time to bring his Senate colleague on board on a letter the state’s Democratic House members sent the Legislature opposing an amendment. “I was in a hurry. I didn’t have time to get a signature out of a presidential candidate,” Frank said.

“But let’s be fair,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s reasonable for [the Democratic candidates] to be out for gay marriage. The people aren’t out for that.”

Nevertheless, Kerry tested the waters on the state question in a National Public Radio interview this week in which he suggested that he could support an amendment if it were clear that it did not also preclude civil unions. He may have been staging a Sister Souljah moment in which he could be seen standing up to a constituency to which Republicans love to charge Democrats are beholden, just as Bill Clinton spoke out against the African American rapper in a 1992 breakfast hosted by Jesse Jackson. Or he may have been spelling out the terms he expected Democrats in the state Legislature to adopt.

But Kerry has erred, principally by allowing himself to be dragged implicitly into the back and forth over language being negotiated in Boston, a miasma in which there will likely be no real winner. He would have shown greater backbone and integrity had he simply said he opposed tinkering with any constitution to exclude rights from a specific class of people. Kerry would not have had to cede any ground on the underlying question of same-sex marriage––an issue that national Democrats seem convinced is political poison––but he could have sent an important signal to gay and lesbian voters that he is prepared to stand consistent with a principle.

As Kerry considers the outreach for votes and funds he will undoubtedly be making in gay communities across the nation, he should bear in mind that it’s not too late to choose principle over indecision.

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