In interviews this week, top Democrats were struggling with how to handle the gay marriage decision at next year's convention, with the party's chairman saying he would like to avoid what he called "wedge issues" and to remain focused on the Democrats' traditional message of the economy, jobs, and health care.
"This convention will not be about those issues. It's not going to happen," Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe told the Globe yesterday. "George Bush wants us to talk about those other issues, because he can't talk about jobs, he can't talk about health care, he can't talk about education. This election is not going to be about these wedge issues that the Republicans and George Bush want us to talk about."
That approach is far from certain, however, as some Democrats, including Convention chairman Bill Richardson, said the party should recast the gay marriage debate as one of basic civil rights, to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans. Some Republicans are seeking to amend the US Constitution to explicitly outlaw gay marriage nation-wide, though President Bush hasn't committed to the effort.
"The Republicans are lockstep, hard-line right on every issue, but we're diverse on our points of view on issues, and we believe in civil rights," said Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. "That issue's not going to be a problem for us."
The gay marriage issue was thrust upon Democrats in their convention city last month, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gay couples have a right under the state constitution to marry. The decision opened the door to gay marriages in Massachusetts within six months, well before Democrats descend on Boston for next July's convention.
The court's decision exposed a rift within the Democratic Party over the issue of gay marriage. While gay-rights groups and some liberal Democrats celebrated the decision, Richardson and the front-running Democratic presidential contenders oppose gay marriage. Instead, they have voiced support for civil unions to give same-sex couples many of the same rights and benefits that are available through marriage.
The court decision from the state that is hosting the convention could make it easier for Republicans to paint the eventual nominee as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal. As the home of US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former governor Michael S. Dukakis, that was going to be an issue anyway; shortly after Boston won the convention last year, retiring House Republican leader Dick Armey quipped, "If I were a Democrat, I suspect I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, in America."
The gay marriage decision will only put a finer point on the Bay State's liberal leanings, said Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College. Given that, Wolfe said, Democrats are smart to reshape the issue in a way that suits them.
Before, during, and after the convention, the nominee should avoid trying to make a distinction between gay marriage and civil unions and instead focus on rights and benefits gay couples can enjoy through either institution, he said.
"If it's going to be an issue -- and the Republicans will make it one -- a defensive reaction is not going to be effective," Wolfe said. "The best hope for the Democrats is to be quite aggressive about it and say this is about rights and about not discriminating against people."
But Republicans are warning that strategies to refashion or avoid the issue of gay marriage won't make them go away. Gary Bauer, a GOP presidential candidate in 2000, said the convention in Boston will highlight an issue on which the opposition to gay marriage stance by most Republicans is both clearer cut and closer to the mainstream than the Democrats' position.
Having the convention in a Democrat-controlled state where gay marriage is a reality will help make the issue "a very convenient marker for the cultural differences between the two parties," Bauer said.
"For most Americans, it will come down to a simple question of what is marriage," said Bauer, who now serves as president of the conservative group American Values. "It's going to take more than some glib verbal maneuvering."
Ron Kaufman, a Massachusetts member of the Republican National Committee, said attempts to gloss over the gay marriage issue will be foiled by extreme groups on both the right and the left. The convention in Boston, he said, would force Democrats to confront the marriage question, not just gay rights.
"It's going to push the party to the left on an issue that the middle feels strongly about," Kaufman predicted. "Most Americans do believe in the tradition of marriage, and that's where the great middle really is."
For now, gay leaders say they don't see the need to push the party further in the direction of gay marriage. "We have won civil marriage rights in this state, and we have no plans in Massachusetts to have a party fight over this," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
At the 2000 convention, Democrats adopted a party platform that suggested support for civil unions without explicitly calling for it, saying that gays and lesbians should have "an equitable alignment of benefits." While the language for next year's convention is far from being determined, Richardson said he would push to see it resolved well in advance of the convention.
Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, chairman of the Democratic Party in the presidential battleground state of Michigan, said Democrats should use to their advantage the fact that there's "near unanimity" within their party for extending rights to gays and lesbians. The party should emphasize their belief in civil rights for all, he said.
"We are the party of tolerance, and we are proud of that," Hollowell said. "While others will try to use this as a wedge issue, as a party philosophically I don't think we should fall for that trap."
Mayor Thomas M. Menino predicted that after the initial flurry of interest in gay marriage, the issue will recede into the background.
"People right now are very frustrated," Menino said. "The message has to be economic security, how we're going to make sure we have a secure future, educationally and jobwise."
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.
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