By Anna Schwartz
In the early 1990s, pundits and politicians warned of the forthcoming "culture wars," in which the traditional values of middle America would be pitted against those of the coastal liberal elite – a fight to the death, these experts warned, and one which would fundamentally alienate both sides, causing a decisive split in the American polity. In the era of Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America, the battle raged, as those so-called traditional values had found representation in Washington. The Republican party, reeling from its 1992 loss of the White House – the first in 12 years – made a concerted effort to win over voters concerned with the erosion of conservative social values. The marriage of fiscal and social conservatism has always been troubled, and now it seems headed for divorce (that is, if the social conservatives don’t attempt a constitutional ban on that as well). Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks last week in support of states’ rights to define marriage demonstrate that strain.
The cornerstone of conservative thought in the United States’ history has been states’ rights – the idea that the federal government should stay out of the affairs of the states in any and all possible ways. In opining that it should be up to the states to define the parameters of marriage, Dick Cheney conforms to a strand of thought with roots as deep as The Federalist Papers. Fiscal conservatives, concerned with limiting the purview of the federal government in terms of the liabilities of the budget, see no inconsistency in Cheney’s position about gay marriage.
A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office shows that the impact of permitting same-sex marriage would be a positive one for the federal budget. With the budget strain of this administration’s foreign policy-decisionmaking – the liberation of Iraq did not come cheaply – the $400 million per year in savings for the federal government is hardly chump change. The problem with this study, however, is that it fails to account for the fact that feelings about same-sex marriage are not economically motivated. None of the anti-gay-marriage protestors who set up shop outside the Massachusetts state house earlier this year carried signs or chanted slogans having to do with taxes: the polemic "God hates fags," a perennial favorite of the protestors, relies not on Congressional Budget Office findings, but – purportedly -- on the bible.
It is not the business of the government, however, to legislate feelings. The same principle in the constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state should inform the politics of marriage: it is not the government’s business which God one worships, or which gender one marries. In an ideal world, the social conservatives that comprise a large part of the Republican "base" would understand and accept that logic. In reality, however, these voters have expressed outrage at the position expressed by the Vice President.
Cheney’s remarks may have been an intentional distraction from the administration’s adoption of a hard-line on the issue (one which may alienate precious swing voters), but it is nonetheless an articulation of a commonly-held position, made personal by the fact that Cheney’s daughter, Mary, is a lesbian. Cheney also has nothing to lose – if re-elected, this will be his last term in office – and his decision to diverge from the party line will not cost him his nomination.
The base of socially-conservative voters lack political representation other than that of the Republican party, and thus it is natural that they expressed outrage at Cheney’s remarks. But since these voters will check the box for Bush anyway, the Republican powers-that-be should re-evaluate whether it is necessary or logically consistent to respond to their outrage. Ultimately, however, Cheney is right – constitutionally and morally – that "freedom means freedom for everyone."