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JOAN VENNOCHI

A 'culture war' on gay marriage could hurt GOP

CULTURAL WAR versus war in Iraq. To Republicans, a war over gay marriage rights foisted upon the nation by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court may sound like a welcome and winnable distraction.

That is, until they remember Houston.

"The radical right is demanding a cultural war and calling for a civil war within the Republican Party at a level not seen since the 1992 Houston convention," observes Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. "The last time I checked, that led to the defeat of the first President Bush."

The group, the nation's largest gay Republican organization, put out a statement applauding the Massachusetts SJC decision that homosexual couples are constitutionally entitled to marry.

Guerriero believes that the Republican Party and the White House should stick with jump-starting the economy and winning the war on terrorism rather than going down the path of "Patrick Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson, and the failed strategy of the past."

In 1992, the GOP's right wing took over the convention and podium in Houston to declare a mean and supposedly holy war against Americans whose beliefs are different from its own. In a speech to delegates, Patrick J. Buchanan stated it as plainly as can be: "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself." Buchanan's theme was reinforced by other conservative political and religious leaders who scared the country on prime-time television.

That November Bill Clinton won the White House. Bush's defeat was due partly to his failure to address the nation's stagnant economy. But the ousting of an incumbent was also the country's reaction to the ugly, narrow intolerance displayed in Houston, not by Bush personally but by others in his party.

Why would George W. Bush want that same shrill, divisive discourse to permeate his campaign for reelection? He was elected as a compassionate conservative. His vice president, Dick Cheney, has an openly gay daughter who brings her partner to White House dinners. Today the country is even more tolerant toward gays than it was a decade ago, and the tolerance is more outspokenly bipartisan. That political reality of growing tolerance toward gays and lesbians can be seen in Bush's initial response to the Massachusetts court ruling. He did not specifically endorse a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Guerriero, a former Massachusetts legislator and mayor, is trying to keep it that way: "The closer the Republican Party gets to fueling this cultural war and having a national debate about basic civil rights, the closer they get to a very dangerous path," he warns.

The right wing took that path in Houston in 1992 and is battling anew for the soul of the current president. "There is a real split in the White House about which path to take. Some see this as a great wedge issue against certain Democratic candidates. Others fear that a cultural war could supersede tax policy and other issues Republicans can win on," says Guerriero.

At the same time, the ruling from Massachusetts's highest court also holds political risks for Democrats seeking to challenge Bush. Most of the Democrats running for president support some form of legal rights for same-sex couples. In response to the SJC ruling, Dennis Kucinich said, "The right to marry is a civil right that should not be denied." Those polling higher were more equivocal. Howard Dean issued a statement noting that he signed a bill authorizing civil unions when he was governor of Vermont. Senator John F. Kerry says he opposes gay marriage but called on the Legislature to ensure equal protection for gay couples. Retired General Wesley K. Clark said, "as someone who supports the legal rights of all Americans regardless of sexual orientation, I appreciate today's decision." The Democrats oppose a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

Is it better for Bush if the election turns on the sanctity of traditional marriage or the long-range merits of "Iraqification?" Republicans should be careful what they wish for.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

Ross Ozer and his partner, Scott Gortikov Ross Ozer (left) and his partner, Scott Gortikov, took their 18-month-old son, Sam Ozer-Gortikov, to a celebration of the court ruling at the Old South Meeting House. Gortikov proposed marriage to Ozer after hearing of the decision. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
Dan Avila and Maria Parker Dan Avila and Maria Parker of the Mass. Catholic Conference denounced the ruling. (Reuters Photo)
Text of the decision
Gay population
The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households. Provincetown is the community in Mass. with the highest rate of gay partners, about 15 percent of households.
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