In fulfillment of a campaign promise, newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed legislation to the New York State Assembly that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. Though the prospects for passage of the bill are low even in a legislature controlled by Mr. Spitzer's own party, already he has made history by being the first governor to give the support of his executive office to this issue. In doing so the Governor shows remarkable courage and integrity, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that though it is inconsequential for President Bush to propose a constitutional amendment "defending marriage," it would be political suicide for any Democrat aspiring to executive office to champion the cause of same-sex marriage rights.
Eliot Spitzer has shown a way for Democratic candidates going into the election in 2008. "Wedge issues" such as same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom have fueled GOP electoral support for decades, and the conservative media have so dominated the national discourse on these topics that Democrats remain in perpetual retreat in these realms. When George W. Bush declares that he is willing to amend the constitution but Hilary Clinton or Jonathan Edwards or whatever other Democrat one cares to mention declares that s/he is for "civil unions" but against same-sex marriage the President looks like a person who has the courage of his convictions and Democrats look like intellectual and moral cowards.
Same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom are civil and human rights issues, they are concerned with securing for ourselves and our fellow citizens the liberties and protections promised to all Americans in the founding principles of our Republic. Opponents of these concerns may have a moral sensibility that deserves respect, but such respect should not extend to a dilution or repudiation of the profound philosophical and moral principles upon which the urgent advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom rest. Relying on the courts to secure same-sex couples and women their civil rights is a failing strategy. History shows that the courts have been a regressive force as often as they have been a progressive force on issues of civil and human rights. Moreover, housing such concerns in the courts places a distorting strain on those institutions that they were never designed to sustain and that is harmful to our Republic in the long term.
I would urge all Democratic candidates in the upcoming election to follow Eliot Spitzer's lead. A bold advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom would raise quite a hue and cry, and would no doubt energize the conservative base of the GOP. But at the same time it would cast the debate over these issues into clear terms and foreground them in ways that would bring out the real majority tenor of American public opinion. The next Democratic presidential hopeful should call for our Constitution to be amended to defend same-sex marriage rights in all fifty states and to permanently defend a woman's right to choose an abortion throughout the Union. Such a move might drive some conservative independents toward the GOP, but it would bring far more disenchanted liberals back to the fold who are tired of the moral equivocation of recent Democratic campaigns. Moreover, though a bold advocacy position might not achieve a constitutional change, it would demand a precise and logical debate on these issues that would deflate much of the obfuscatory rhetoric that has served the GOP so well. A genuine debate about these issues might just demonstrate to Americans on both the left and right that they are not quite as far apart on these issues as television and radio pundits make them out to be.