Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Gay Marriage I: Cheney in the Middle

During the Primary of 2000 I wasn't a Bush supporter. In the early days of the season, I was campainging for Dan Quayle, a much more conservative candidate than either the current president or his father. I only came into Bush's camp because of what I perceived to be the dishonest centrism of John McCain. I knew that Bush was running as basically a Kennedy liberal: tough on foreign policy, especially with regard to restoring the military, but far too willing to spend money on social programs.

But as the campaign wore on, I began to notice the kind of people Bush surrounded himself with and began to allow that he might actually make a decent president. First and foremost, of course, was Condoleeza Rice whom I would still like to see someday at the top of the ticket. But almost as impressive, to my mind, was Dick Cheney who provided what at the time was trendilly referred to as gravitas.

Now that the Bush administration is nearing the end of its first term, I am pleased to note that I was pretty much right on all counts. Bush has exceeded expectations with his foreign policy, has outspent Clinton on domestic social programs (OK, maybe "pleased" wasn't the right word in the previous sentence) and he has generally been well served by his staff, including Mr. Cheney.

I say all of this by way of introduction to my real topic which is Gay Marriage and the deplorable way the Republican party has allowed itself to be maneuvered into an untenable position on the issue. Since this is a rather daunting topic, I have been waiting for an event that would provide an appropriate entre. I think the controversy of which Mr. Cheney currently finds himself at the center will serve that turn as well as any.

For those of you who are not familiar with the issue, there are a few facts that you should know. First, Mary Cheney, the Vice President's daughter and sometime campaign director, is openly lesbian. Second, the president, Cheney's boss, has reluctantly but firmly thrown his support behind the attempt to amend the Constitution to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual. I have not been able to ascertain whether or not Mary supports gay marriage, but even if she does not, this would seem to place Mr. Cheney in a rather awkward position. During the 2000 debate with Joe Lieberman, Cheney expressed the federalism argument that such things should be left up to the states, but since Bush has come out in support of the Federal Marriage amendment (FMA), Cheney has been mostly silent on the actual issue, stating merely that he supports the president.

But all that changed this afternoon at a rally in Iowa:

"Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue our family is very familiar with," Cheney told an audience that included his daughter. "With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. ... People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.

"The question that comes up with the issue of marriage is what kind of official sanction or approval is going to be granted by government? Historically, that's been a relationship that has been handled by the states. The states have made that fundamental decision of what constitutes a marriage," he said.

There are two points to note at this juncture. First, as I stated above, Mr. Cheney is reiterating his basic position in the 2000 campaign. That shows a certain amount of integrity and consistency that is refreshing, even a bit shocking, this close to an election. But second, I think it illustrates a properly conservative attitude toward government. I will have more to say on this later, but for now let us note that revolutionary measures are rarely warranted by a mature political philosophy.

Cheney goes on to explain the President's position and his own attitude toward that position:
"I think his perception was that the courts, in effect, were beginning to change, without allowing the people to be involved," Cheney said. "The courts were making the judgment for the entire country."

Addressing Bush's position on the amendment, Cheney said: "At this point, say, my own preference is as I've stated, but the president makes policy for the administration. He's made it clear that he does, in fact, support a constitutional amendment on this issue."

Notice the concise way Cheney has managed to spell out the relevant issues. Judicial activism, anti-democratic tendencies and his own personal respect for the president's office are all referenced in not many more words than it took me to list them. If you are looking for nuance coupled with conservative principles, look no further. This is the proper way to express disagreement over particulars towards people with whom you fundamentally agree.

So, you would think that conservatives, whether or not they agree with Cheney, would at least respect the careful way he has phrased his responses in order to minimize conflict. If you did think so, you would be wrong, at least as far as some conservative are concerned:
Those comments drew criticism from the conservative Family Research Council, with President Tony Perkins saying: "I find it hard to believe the vice president would stray from the administration's position on defense policy or tax policy. For many pro-family voters, protecting traditional marriage ranks ahead of the economy and job creation as a campaign issue."

This is an unwise gambit on several levels. Bringing up the contrast between the social and fiscal conservatives at this point plays into the Democratic canard that conservatives are all about money. I don't know what Mr. Perkins' views on tax policy are, but I doubt he would be happy if Cheney did stray from Tax policies so I don't see what purpose this innuendo serves. Ditto on the defense issue.

But more problematic still is the notion that there is only one way that reasonable people can view the issue of homosexuality. I don't necessarily agree with Mr. Cheney's "live and let die" defense of his position, having heard way too much of that sort of thing growing up in the 70s. But, as I mentioned, I think he makes some substantive points and they deserve to be addressed directly. The attempt to short-circuit the debate by appealing to the president's authority (or worse still to the infamous "party line") will merely serve to confirm in many a skeptic's mind that the Evangelical wing is not ready for prime-time.

But it gets worse:
Perkins added that if Cheney sees a problem with activist judges, "then how can he not endorse the same solution the president and his pro-family allies have proposed? We urge Vice President Cheney to support President Bush and a constitutional amendment on marriage."

What was implicit in the earlier quote is now quite blatant. Mr. Perkins clearly does not want any intellectual debate on the matter. He wants his agenda pushed and will brook no dissent, informed or otherwise. Persuasion and dialogue are evidently not legitimate tools for achieving those goals.

Before I go too much further, I need to point out that I probably share many of the moral presuppositions of Mr. Perkins as against those of Mr. Cheney. I believe that homosexuality is a grievous sin, and that its practitioners are more in need of repentance than acceptance. I also believe (which possibly Mr. Perkins does not) that the only way to secure a just and free society is for that society to base its laws on the precepts of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. But I also recognize that such a society will not be achieved through compulsion but through persuasion and prayer. In coming posts I will explore how those themes mesh with the current political milieu and, hopefully, shed some light on what steps conservatives can and should be taking to win the debate.

One final note: Since it has become common to question the timing of any political utterance in this contentious election cycle, I hereby do so. It occurs to me that the Vice President's going off the reservation this close to the election may be paving the way for a realignment of the Bush administration with regard to what can only be called a doomed policy. I do not believe that wishful thinking should play any significant role in political analysis, but since I do fervently wish that we had never wandered into this hornets nest, I will say that I hope Mr. Bush is positioning himself to at least a partial retreat from his support for the FMA. I am only a small voice among the greater clarions of the blogosphere, but if anything I say can help to achieve such a rethinking, I shall not fail to attempt it.

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