Thursday, February 26, 2004

The War President

Bush told Tim Russert he’s a “war president.” He meant the Culture War, and he’s already got his troops of orcs of the Religious Reich lined up.

They’re making it an issue already. Leaders of the Christian right have been meeting for months to plot strategy on the gay marriage issue, and they appear to have coalesced around a two-part plan. First, they’ll join with the White House in pushing for a federal constitutional amendment that prohibits gay marriage anywhere in the United States.

Next they’ll jam moderate and liberal politicians with a no-win choice: support the constitutional amendment or stand accused of supporting gay marriage. “Here’s the thing we need to do,” says Glenn Stanton, director of social research and cultural affairs for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. “Never, never let any politician find safe haven not to address this directly.”

It may be a good strategy for the religious right, but it’s a risky one for the White House. If Bush and Rove play the gay card too hard in 2004 — or if they find themselves linked too closely to militant Christians — they risk exposing the president to charges of gay bashing and scratching off whatever remains of his “compassionate conservative” veneer.

There are other risks for the right. An increasingly noisy and empowered Christian conservative movement could turn on itself fighting over how far to push on gay marriage. While Bush said Tuesday that state legislatures should be free to define “legal arrangements other than marriage,” some right-wing groups are demanding that any constitutional amendment expressly outlaw not just gay marriage but civil unions or any other legal benefits for sex-same couples as well. And the emboldened crusaders of the religious right could also, in turn, stir up the Democratic rank and file to defeat Bush and the triumph of cultural reaction his administration represents.

But if history teaches one thing about Bush and Rove and their allies on the right, it’s that they’re not afraid to use nasty political tactics on divisive social issues if they think it will help them win an election.

And history teaches one more thing: They’re good at it.

If generals are always fighting the last war, Bush is running his old election strategy – including the one that got his father elected in 1988. But this time around will it work? That depends on how intelligent the electorate is. After all, to quote Mr. Bush, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… uh, won’t get fooled again.” (What does it tell you about a man who flashbacks to lyrics by The Who? Just what the hell were you smoking in Alabama?)