Saturday, January 28, 2006

You Just Can’t Keep a Dumb Idea Down

[[P O L I T I C S]] * Has U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) learned nothing about the political damage that can result from fronting for America’s narrow-minded religious right? During last year’s Terri Schiavo fiasco, he made a mockery of his hard-won Harvard Medical School degree by proclaiming--based solely on a videotape shot of the bedridden, 41-year-old Florida woman--that Schiavo was not living in a “persistent vegetative state,” regardless of the conclusions drawn by neurologists at her bedside, and therefore she should not be allowed to die. Only months later, Frist spoke out in favor of teaching the pseudo-scientific, faith-based theory of “intelligent design” in schools alongside Darwinian evolution--not long before three dozen Nobel laureates denounced I.D. as “fundamentally unscientific” and the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, initiated a backlash against the theory that’s expected to spill over into other communities. Between such blunders and an insider-trading scandal related to his ownership of shares in HCA Inc., a national for-profit hospital chain founded by his family, Frist has probably killed any hope of his being the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.

Yet, here’s the second-term Republican solon once more doing the bidding of the James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons of the world, this time trying to resurrect a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would restrict marriage in America to unions between one man and one woman, and prevent state legislatures or judges from providing marriage-like rights to same-sex couples or other unmarried citizens.

What’s now called the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) was first introduced by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003. Though it failed by a substantial margin to win Senate backing in 2004, it picked up considerable notoriety during that year’s presidential race, after Massachusetts became the first and only state to legalize same-sex marriages, and the city of San Francisco, in evident defiance of California law, began issuing thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples (later to be ruled void). The GOP fought to make what it preferred to call “gay marriage” a wedge issue during the election. Not only did Republicans push for anti-same-sex marriage amendments to the constitutions of 11 states (eventually winning in nine), but they used the issue to clobber Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry, who didn’t personally support same-sex marriage, yet represented Massachusetts. Meanwhile, incumbent Republican George W. Bush, whose positions on same-sex marriage weren’t all that different from his opponent’s, stumped for the FMA, casting himself as the candidate who would stand up for “traditional American values.” Pundits later suggested that Bush’s FMA stance had been integral to his narrow re-election victory. However, once he was safely back in the Oval Office, the prez stopped talking about such an amendment. So quiet did he fall on the matter, in fact, that two months after the election, a coalition of conservative Christian groups wrote a letter to presidential adviser Karl Rove, threatening to withdraw their support from Bush’s prized Social Security “reforms,” unless the prez sought to overcome Senate opposition to the FMA. (“We couldn’t help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side,” the letter said. “Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage?”)

Still, little has happened nationally since on the same-sex marriage front. Until now. According to Raw Story, Frist wants to make the Federal Marriage Amendment an issue again in 2006--another election year, and one in which the GOP appears set to lose seats on Capitol Hill. Even though polls show that American voters on the whole are not nearly so concerned about this issue as the social and religious conservatives who make up the base of today’s Republican Party; and even though prominent Republican senators such as John McCain of Arizona and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire have made their opposition to such an amendment clear, their GOP colleagues think that the FMA can be a winner for them once more. Dave Noble, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, suggests that it’s a way to distract the public. “Congress has a terrible approval rating,” he told Raw Story, “and they need something to avoid talking about the issues that people want them to talk about. Wouldn’t it be great to have people focus on same-sex marriage instead of the corruption issues facing Congress?”

Frist has argued before that the push for a Federal Marriage Amendment is not simply political. He insists that it would be an important means to prevent “activist judges” from undermining the basic institution of marriage, and that the time is right to “to protect marriage for what it’s been in this country for hundreds of years.” But if he really believes that, he’s fooling nobody but himself. The FMA is a cudgel that the Republicans--suffering under the weights of congressional and White House scandals, blamed for the disastrous situation in Iraq, and unable to defend themselves against charges that they’ve wasted public money on pork projects and failed to adequately police Bush’s power grabbing and warrantless domestic spying--intend to swing at the heads of their Democratic adversaries. If Frist succeeds in using the FMA, either by passing it through Congress (unlikely) or simply using it to stampede social conservatives to the polls (more likely), then he’ll deserve credit for his efforts. But, as with the Schiavo mess, it’s more likely that the gentleman from Tennessee will end up looking like a fool for having carried the religious right’s unholy water one more time.

READ MORE:Bill Frist Says Government Intervention Wasn’t Welcome in Schiavo Case,” by Joe Gandelman (The Moderate Voice).

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