DOMA Fight Seen As Turning Point in Politics of Gay Rights

March 17, 2011 6:27 a.m.

In what is perhaps a watershed moment in the long fight for gay rights, the current battle over the Defense of Marriage Act is being waged with at least tacit acknowledgment from all sides that it is a political winner for pro-gay-rights Democrats.

In the wake of President Obama’s decision to drop support for portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, gay rights advocates have been unabashed in claiming that beyond the merits of their underlying argument they now have the political advantage as well. Not only does public opinion polling suggest they’re right, but the reaction of gay rights opponents does, too.

On Wednesday, House and Senate Democrats held separate press conferences announcing the introduction of legislation to repeal DOMA. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), one of the sponsors of the House bill, was asked whether Democrats were politicizing gay rights as a wedge issue against the GOP, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor alleged last month.

“What do I say to the idea that this is a wedge issue? I say ‘Hallelujah,'” Frank told reporters. “The fact that we’ve now evolved to the point where the Republicans are complaining about the fact that we introduced this bill because it causes them political problems is a great sign of progress. It used to be the other way around.”Frank noted that the original 1996 DOMA was used by Congress in part to put President Clinton in a tough political spot ahead of his re-election race against Bob Dole. Many political observers credited Republican efforts to ban gay marriage on the state and federal level with helping secure President Bush’s re-election in 2004 as well. In his memoirs last year, Rove wrote that a 2003 Massachusetts court decision legalizing gay marriage “did affect the 2004 election by motivating culturally conservative Democrats and independents who might otherwise have voted Democratic to abandon Kerry over his wobbly views on marriage.”

In his statement on President Obama’s decision to abandon DOMA, Cantor revealed how much the tables have turned, calling the move “a clear political exercise by the Administration.” A recent poll commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, found a majority of Americans opposed DOMA and backed Obama’s position. Other polls have found support for legalizing gay marriage entirely trending rapidly towards a majority — a recent Pew survey found 46% of respondents opposed to allowing gay marriage versus 45% who back the idea.

“The wedge has lost its edge,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who worked on Bush’s 2004 campaign, told The New York Times last month.

Other supporters of gay marriage appeared less comfortable with the 2004 comparisons, but were nonetheless quick to point out splits within the Republican Party on the issue. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said at the press conference that repealing DOMA is “certainly not a political wedge issue,” but immediately ticked off a list of GOP figures who now back gay marriage, including Dick Cheney.

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