WASHINGTON — The true opening notes of the 2004 presidential campaign were played last week. They didn't come from the White House or Congress or even Iowa. They came from Massachusetts in the form of a 4-to-3 vote by that state's highest court, and the message embedded in them is clear: 2004 could end up being a very ugly year in American politics.
The ruling, which calls for allowing gay marriages in Massachusetts, generated a to-the- barricades response from the political right. Sandy Rios, president of the conservative Concerned Women for America, told listeners of her radio show they needed to do something to fight the ruling or face a future where "you see the American public disintegrating and you see our enemies overtaking us because we have no moral will."
Strong words. And they're probably only the beginning. Already people on both sides of the issue are promising that gay marriage will play a major role in the presidential race. Expect debate, through the candidates or their proxies, about the Ten Commandments monument removed from the Alabama courts building, the use of the word God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and partial-birth abortion. [Editor's note: The original version had located the court building in Mississippi instead of Alabama.]
In short, the "cultural war" that Pat Buchanan said was here in his historic (ultimately damaging) speech at the 1992 Republican convention will be playing front and center for the next year. And this is not good.
We've seen this before. The nation's history is littered with campaigns focused on "whose country is it, anyway?" But normally those races come at a time when the issues the country faces are not particularly complicated - usually times when the national dialogue is relatively void of heavy topics. The most recent example, the 1988 race, which spent time discussing the Pledge of Allegiance "issue," took place in a time of relative prosperity. The economy was rolling along, the nation's "war" was a cold one, and terrorism was something that happened elsewhere.
But 2004 is different. There is a bevy of serious issues for the nation to confront. How should the nation conduct a war on something as elusive as terrorism? Can the US get out of Iraq quickly and with good results, having gone in controversially? Did the government do the right thing when it went into Iraq and did it have an adequate plan for the aftermath? What should the nation do about the apparently permanent loss of manufacturing jobs it has seen? Are the tax policies implemented by the current administration working?
You may stand on one side of these issues or the other, but there is little denying that they're serious questions on which this presidential race will have a direct bearing. The same is not really true about the issue of gay marriage - Congress already passed the federal Defense of Marriage Act and a Democratic president signed it into law. Something stronger, such as a constitutional amendment, is unlikely because moderate Republicans believe it goes too far.
But beyond all that, culture-war campaigns aren't good because the arguments end up being empty or misleading. The issues involved are so charged, most politicians are leery of taking definitive stands on them for fear of angering voters. Instead, they talk around issues in arguments and code language that miss the main points. Gay marriage is such an issue.
Many opponents of gay marriage argue against it largely on grounds that marriage is for procreation. But if marriage, in the eyes of the government, was in part or whole about procreation, shouldn't procreation be mentioned in state laws about marriage? And what about older people who marry after their child-rearing years are passed? Should they be "married" or should we call it something else?
At the same time, many supporters of gay marriage, including some Democratic presidential candidates, have made the argument into a game of semantics. Afraid to say they are in favor of gay marriage, most simply say they favor "civil unions." But a "civil union" is exactly what a state-recognized marriage is - a union of two people in the eyes of the government. What exactly is the difference?
There is, without question, a lot of symbolic weight riding on this issue, as there is with many issues in the great cultural war that divides red America (those districts that vote Republican) and blue America (those districts that vote for Democrats). There is also some legal weight, such as tax status (which actually isn't favorable to many married couples) and who is recognized as a "family member" in times of crisis.
But there are other issues with which this race is more directly concerned. In the end, campaigns waged around the concept of cultural war usually end up leading to two things: insufficient attention to the issues that need it most, and a caricatured, divisive discussion of the cultural issues everyone is talking about.
Get ready for a long year.