Revisiting the Wimp Factor

Sen. John Kerry is, by just about any definition, that most exotic of political creatures, a Massachusetts liberal. Republican operatives say that means he's easy prey.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said last month, "Americans for Democratic Action, the premier liberal rating organization, has given John Kerry a lifetime rating of 93 percent. Ted Kennedy has a lifetime rating of 88 percent, 5 points less. Who would have guessed it? Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!"

If Kerry's the Democratic nominee, Republicans expect to turn him into another Michael Dukakis, someone easy to depict as a criminal-coddling, ACLU-loving, furlough-granting, death-penalty-opposing, tax-raising, Pledge-of-Allegiance-objecting, politically correct liberal elitist. Kerry speaks French, for goodness' sake! And he was once Gov. Dukakis's lieutenant governor.

But Kerry is also a decorated war hero and a former prosecutor. And he's also something else: not a wimp. Kerry's rallying cry to Democrats: "If George Bush wants to make national security the centerpiece of this campaign, we have three words for him that we know he understands. 'Bring it on!'"

Dukakis acquired the wimp image in 1988 because he let the elder George Bush, who was supposed to be the wimpy candidate, beat him up. Kerry's not about to make that mistake. "This is one Democrat who's going to fight back," Kerry told Virginia Democrats last weekend, "and I've only just begun to fight."

Kerry would certainly look a lot better in an Army tank than Dukakis, maybe better than George W. Bush did on an aircraft carrier. "Some of us know something about aircraft carriers for real," Kerry tells Democrats.

One other difference from 1988: This Bush is the incumbent president, one defending an uncertain economy and a controversial record. The 2004 election will be a referendum on him, not on his Democratic opponent.

Massachusetts's image got a little more exotic this month, when the state's Supreme Judicial Court weighed in yet again in the battle over gay marriage. The court informed the state Legislature that nothing short of full-fledged marriage for same-sex couples would meet the requirements of the state constitution.

Kerry responded to the ruling by saying, "I personally believe the court is wrong." He has to square that position with his 1996 vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of gay marriages. President Clinton signed that bill into law. Kerry's explanation? "I support equal rights and the right of people to have civil unions—equal partnership rights. I don't support [gay] marriage. I never have. That's my position."

The issue is no less difficult for President Bush. He is under intense pressure from the Religious Right to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. In his State of the Union address last month, Bush stopped just short of endorsing a new amendment. "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process," he said.

Bush seems reluctant to get involved in an issue that could damage his image as a compassionate conservative. If he endorsed an anti-gay amendment, he would be open to the charge that he was trying to put discrimination back into the Constitution. "No matter how you feel about marriage, it's always going to be wrong to go out of your way to amend the Constitution to discriminate against one particular group of people," contended Mary Bonauto, lead attorney for the Massachusetts couples who sued for the right to marry.

Actually, the president has no formal role in the process of amending the Constitution. But conservatives are looking to Bush for political leadership, and Congress is unlikely to act without his endorsement. The White House is reported to favor the amendment sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., that would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages but not explicitly prohibit civil unions.

Meanwhile, polls this month by Time and Newsweek show that 30 to 33 percent of Americans favor legal recognition of gay marriage, with about 60 percent opposed. Support for civil unions in the Newsweek poll is a bit higher (40 percent in favor; 50 percent opposed). In a Gallup Poll last May, 62 percent endorsed the idea that gay couples should have the same legal rights as married heterosexuals when it comes to health benefits and inheritance.

Rights, fine. Marriage, no. Why do Americans have such a big problem with gay marriage? Americans are willing to tolerate gays and give them equal rights. But they are unwilling to express approval of homosexuality. To most Americans, gay marriage means approval.

Bush, if he endorses a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, may find himself in a weaker position than Kerry. Both Time and Newsweek found Americans split down the middle when asked whether they favor amending the Constitution to ban gay marriages. Changing the Constitution is not something Americans take lightly.

Republicans think they know how to run against a Massachusetts Democrat. But it's not clear whether this year's volatile social issues will end up helping Republicans, as they did in 1988, or hurting them, as they did in 1992, when the Republican National Convention conveyed the impression of harshness and intolerance.