Over on his website, Atrios speculates as to why Tom DeLay delivered such a measured response to the president's call today for a constitutional ban on gay marriages. His take is that maybe this won't go over that well in the Republican caucus and so DeLay and Hastert and Frist are moving cautiously.
I think he's got it basically right.
Now, obviously, DeLay's relative caution in embracing the president's position (so to speak) doesn't stem from any new-found concern for gay rights. And I'm sure we'll hear him soon enough saying rancid things about how gay marriages will end western civilization, and so forth.
But I have real questions about how many Republican members of congress were excited to hear this from the president. I have no doubt that many members of congress from the South and other conservative parts of the country will happily vote in favor of it. And I have no doubt that many others will vote in favor of it, happily or not.
But I bet you there aren't that many senators and representatives outside of the South and perhaps the Mountain West who are looking forward to this coming to a vote at all.
Think about it this way.
If you're an incumbent, you're more than likely to be cruising towards a victory in November. Why do you need the headache? In most parts of the country any vote on this -- yea or nea -- will instantly make you a lot of enemies. Gordon Smith, Republican Senator from Oregon -- does he want to vote on this? Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, the two Senators from Maine? How about Pete Domenici, Mike DeWine, George Voinovich, Arlen Specter or Kit Bond?
Now, again, my point isn't that all these folks or even any of these folks will vote against this, if and when it comes to a vote. My point is simply that I think the great majority of them would greatly prefer the whole issue never come to them for a vote. And the same applies to many, many Republican reps in the House.
The truth is that this is all for the president. Most politicians see this as a highly-charged, divisive issue best left to states and localities to hash out amongst themselves until some sort of rough consensus emerges either nationally or from region to region. That doesn't mean it's a position based on principle or scruple. They just don't want it in their hands. It's a hot potato.
Nor am I saying that gay marriage is popular. Far from it. I have no doubt that a substantial majority of the population is against allowing marriage rights for gays. But opposing gay marriage isn't the same as wanting to tear the country apart by trying to put this into the constitution -- where I think even many opponents of gay marriage don't think it belongs.
That is why I'm not sure this will even end up being good politics for the president. On the straight issue of gay marriage, yea or nea, I think there's little doubt a sizeable majority opposes this. But there is rising cynicism about the president's motives -- or rather, rising cynicism about the president's cynicism. And I think it's possible that more than a few voters who are uneasy about gay marriage or downright opposed to it won't appreciate the president's willingness to trash the country and the constitution just because his domestic and international policies are in a shambles.
It all reminds me of a line from a famous, or rather infamous, memo Pat Buchanan, then a White House staffer, wrote for Richard Nixon in, I believe, 1972 when their idea of the moment was what they called 'positive polarization'.
At the end of this confidential strategy memo laying out various ideas about how to create social unrest over racial issues and confrontations with the judiciary, Buchanan wrote (and you can find this passage on p. 185 of Jonathan Schell's wonderful Time of Illusion): "In conclusion, this is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads, and cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half."
And there you have it. Tear the country apart. And once it's broken, our chunk will be bigger.
Only this time I'm not sure it will.
I'm just not sure swing voters will fall for the president's opportunism.