How to Win the Coming Gay Marriage War
The GOP, you see, has been desperate for something--anything--to take the minds of the voters off of Iraq, corruption, Foley, scandal, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, "Stay the Course", and the middle-class economy. They figured the "immigration" play would work this summer; it didn't. They figured that the specter of Bin Laden would work again; it hasn't.
And they figured--rightly so--that playing the "gay marriage" card again would make them look ridiculous with so many other pressing matters of concern this election cycle. But now, with the New Jersey ruling, their deepest wishes for a change of focus in this debate have come true. That's why the GOP will be banging the Gay Marriage drum from now until November 7th.
Our answers must be unified. They must be firm. And they must be smart. Above all, they must be unequivocal enough that any given candidate can get the talking points out of the way so that they can move to discuss more important issues facing our nation.
Adam B has a good frontpage post about this issue, but unfortunately even his points will not satisfy a mainstream American electorate still queasy about the idea of gay Americans getting married or having marriage rights.
But there ARE ways of talking about this issue that can satisfy all of the objectives listed above.
In order to frame this issue properly--and trust me, this issue above all others is ALL about framing--it will help to remember what I defined as the five core values for Democrats:
The Common Good.
The Right to Privacy.
For starters, let's talk about what words are anathema to Democrats' successfully talking about these issues: There are two words to avoid at all costs:
1. MARRIAGE While in a perfect, progressive world gay Americans would have the same rights to marriage as any other American, political reality says that most of the electorate is just simply not ready for that yet. Fortunately, however, "gay marriage" is really a misnomer, and terrible framing.
When most Americans hear the word "marriage", they think of a church-sanctioned union. Most Americans are under the deluded assumption that by allowing "gay marriage", churches will be forced to give religious sanction to gay unions. They're NOT thinking of a government license.
If anyone DOES bring up the "marriage" issue, the response is simple:
"This isn't about 'Marriage.' Churches should be free to refuse marriage to whoever they want. Look, this is really simple: I believe that gay American couples should be given the same basic opportunities and freedoms that straight Americans have. Marriage has nothing to do with it.""
2. RIGHTS I know, this is going to be very difficult for most Kossacks to swallow, but the word "rights" works against us here. Moderate American voters have come to think of the word "rights" as a code word for "diversity-enhancing" interests ranging from Affirmative Action (unfairly associated with "Civil Rights") to illegal immigrant amnesty ("Immigrant Rights") to Gay Marriage ("Gay Rights").
Talking about granting Gay Americans the same "rights" as married heterosexuals does not work because marriage is viewed by these people as a "Sanction from God"--and that Marriage Rights are not individual Constitutional rights, but God-Given to married couples in the context of Holy Matrimony--and that as such, gays are not entitled to them. And that doesn't include gays.
More importantly, however, the word "rights" is associated very closely with God in the minds of most Americans. Rights are granted by God--"God-given Rights." Any good qualitative consultant will tell you that consumers interact with words and phrases like stars in constellations: certain words are intrinsically associated with certain other words in a constellation of understanding. The word "Rights", for most American voters, falls either into the constellation of "Political Correctness" (among the bigots) or into the constellation of "Religion" (among American of all stripes from conservative to progressive.) And the key to winning this debate is to shift the debate away from words and phrases closely associated with God in the linguistic constellation of the voters' minds.
It's sad, but it's true.
But there ARE simple words and phrases that anyone and everyone can use--and they're taken straight from the Five Core Values listed above:
And these work because that's what this whole debate is really about. It's not about Marriage or Rights. It's about exactly what Adam B said it is:
health insurance and family leave for same-sex spouses;
equal treatment under wills;
equal rights and obligations under family law for custody, visitation and support;
the rights to spousal and family benefits under such things as workmen's compensation law and survival benefits; and
the testimonial privilege given to the spouse of an accused in a criminal action.
And these issues are extremely important to American voters--because they play on down-home feelings of equality and basic fairness. This is particularly true of the issues of medical vistation and death benefits, which are considered crucial decisions that every American should be free to make, without government interference.
Put simply, there is a STRONG Libertarian streak in the average American voter--a streak that is STRONGER than the Puritan Religious streak--but only if the Libertarian Issues are separated from the Religious ones.
Here are some examples of what our candidates should be saying:
"This really comes down to an issue of freedom. I believe that ALL Americans should have the FREEDOM to choose who can visit them in the hospital. Gay Americans, Straight Americans--even Martian Americans. Frankly, you're unAmerican if you think otherwise."
Apologies to Paul Hackett for stealing the last part, but that's really all that needs be said. Or try this:
"EVERY American should have the OPPORTUNITY to give their stuff to anyone they want when they die. It's an issue of basic FAIRNESS. And I don't know any real American who would say no to that."
And if anyone dares to question on homosexuality itself, the answer is simple:
"That's a matter of privacy. Consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want in the privacy of their own bedrooms. An individual's privacy is part of what America is all about."
You see? It's really that simple.
Fairness. Equality. Privacy. Opportunity.
Democrats can get in front of this issue and stop the oncoming GOP onslaught by appealing to these basic, libertarian, American values that cut across the political spectrum.
Or we can choke like John Kerry, talk about our religion, and hem and haw about Human Rights and the difference between Marriage and Civil Unions.
But above all, we must be ready with a unified message. The onslaught is coming--and the battle will favor those who are best prepared to meet it.