President Bush has finally uttered the words: He supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
For months, religious conservatives have been pressuring Mr. Bush to state unequivocally that he believes the US Constitution needs to be amended to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The issue has reached a crisis point for opponents of gay marriage, with Massachusetts due to start marrying same-sex couples in May and San Francisco already doing so. In a week in which Bush's reelection campaign had already shifted into a higher gear, the gay marriage announcement must be seen through a political lens, analysts say.
"It was inevitable; he had to do it," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "He's very much concerned about the demobilization of his socially conservative base. The Republicans believe the closeness of the election in 2000 was the result of social conservatives being insufficiently enthusiastic about him. He needs to activate that constituency."
Significantly, Bush did not endorse specific language in his announcement, a sign that actually amending the Constitution will be easier said than done. Support in Congress for the leading option, drafted by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) of Colorado, has dwindled of late, because it allows states to recognize civil unions if they choose. That option is unacceptable to social conservatives.
Still, in a signal that the culture wars will be a central feature of the 2004 election - especially with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as the likely Democratic nominee - Bush conveyed a sense of urgency in his comments. Not only are Massachusetts and California on the cutting edge of the debate, even the small town of Bernalillo, N.M., entered the fray last week when the county clerk's office began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Further, several big-city mayors have stated support for gay marriage.
"Unless action is taken, we can expect more arbitrary court decisions, more litigation, more defiance of the law by local officials, all of which adds to uncertainty," Bush said in remarks delivered Tuesday morning from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Because it is an election year, and the issue is so charged, there is virtually no chance Congress will pass an amendment this year. Though a solid majority of the public opposes gay marriage, Americans are evenly split over whether to amend the Constitution.
"Americans have a bias against constitutional amendments for just about anything," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
In recent decades, efforts to amend the Constitution to protect women's rights, ban flag burning, and allow school prayer have failed. The last time the Constitution was amended was in 1992; the 27th Amendment, regarding the regulation of congressional pay, had lain dormant for more than 200 years before becoming part of the Constitution.
In his remarks, Bush referred to the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for the purposes of federal law as the legal union between a man and a woman. President Clinton signed the law in 1996, after it was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress (though opposed by Senator Kerry, who called it "intolerant" of gays). That plus similar "defense of marriage" laws or amendments in 38 states express "an overwhelming consensus in our country for protecting the institution of marriage," Bush said.
Gary Bauer, a social conservative activist who heads the group American Values, welcomed the president's announcement, and asserted that polling data show "the more this is debated, the less support same-sex marriage has."
"We think with the president's leadership, a constitutional amendment will be very possible," Mr. Bauer says. He foresees a vote in Congress by early summer, then a quick move in the states to ratify. "If the vote fails, I think you'll see a number of people lose their seats [in Congress]."
The president had resisted fully endorsing the idea of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In his State of the Union address in January, he mentioned the issue, but did not offer explicit support for an amendment. Now he has cast his lot fully with his social conservative base and may jeopardize the support of some socially liberal Republicans - such as the group called the Log Cabin Republicans - who would have preferred the president take a less absolute position.
"We're seeing a reinvigoration of the culture wars of the '80s, and Bush is trying in many ways to outdo Reagan," says David O'Brien, a government professor at the University of Virginia. "This issue is going to polarize the country more."
In signaling private support in the past for the Musgrave language - which would allow for civil unions and domestic partnership laws at the state level, as a way to make the amendment more palatable to some members of Congress - Bush has left some wiggle room to show tolerance toward gays and toward the right of states to make their own laws. He has asserted that states should be able to "define other arrangements" for such partnerships.
Kerry also opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions. And perhaps more significant for the White House's effort to appear tolerant and keep the gay support that it does have, Vice President Cheney supports civil unions. One of his daughters is openly gay.
Bush's announcement on a gay marriage amendment comes on the heels of his most overtly political speech of the campaign season. On Monday night, the president took on his likely opponent, Kerry - though not by name - in an address to the Republican Governors Association.
As Bush's job-approval ratings have steadily declined over the past two months, into the danger zone of below 50 percent in most national polls, his supporters have agitated for him to join the fight earlier than expected. His campaign will start airing ads on March 4, instead of in the spring, as previously promised.
Without naming the Massachusetts senator by name, Bush asserted Monday that his likely Democratic opponent would raise taxes, damage the economic recovery, and jeopardize national security. Bush accused the Democratic field of both favoring tax cuts and opposing them, favoring the North American Free Trade Agreement and opposing it, favoring liberating Iraq and opposing it.
"And that's just one senator from Massachusetts," Bush quipped.
• Noel C. Paul and Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.