On This, Clinton and Rove Agree

It's rare to hear Bill Clinton and Karl Rove agree on something. But last week, they did. Asked about the impact on the presidential election of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage, Rove said, "I will grant you that the actions of a few activist judges in Massachusetts captured and colored the national imagination."

Bill Clinton said the same thing more directly in a speech at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., on November 9. "With regard to the gay-marriage issue, it was an overwhelming factor in the defeat of John Kerry," the former president said. "There's no question about it."

Another former Democratic candidate for president, Michael Dukakis, has a different opinion about what happened to Kerry, who was once his lieutenant governor. "I don't think that George Bush won this because of gay marriage or evangelical Christianity or any of this stuff," Dukakis said in an interview in his hometown of Brookline, Mass. "He won it, in my judgment, on the national security issue."

Dukakis frames his opinion in a context larger than the campaign. "Had there been no 9/11, then Bush would be on his way back to Crawford, Texas, in my judgment," the former Massachusetts governor said, "and he would have been beaten decisively."

Clinton noted "an astonishing turnout among evangelical Christians" and congratulated President Bush for a "brilliant" campaign. "It worked superbly," Clinton said, "but probably part of it is our fault for not making it clear what our position was."

Some Democrats believe that the best thing they can do on divisive issues like same-sex marriage and abortion is to not talk about them. Clinton disagrees. "Denial is not an acceptable strategy when issues are of obsessive concern to huge numbers of the American people," Clinton chided his fellow Democrats.

Clinton argued that Democrats have a story to tell and that it did not get told in Kerry's campaign. In Clinton's view, Kerry "had a position that I don't think most Americans knew, or wouldn't take seriously, which was that for over 200 years, marriage has been left to religious doctrine and state law." Most voters take a moderate position on same-sex marriage: Let the states and the churches define marriage. "We don't go off and amend the Constitution every time the Supreme Court says something we don't agree with," Clinton contended.

Most voters also take a moderate position on abortion -- essentially Clinton's position -- that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. The former president told his audience, "I'm proud of the fact that we reduced the amount of abortions 25 percent without repealing Roe v. Wade, without demonizing anybody." Clinton believes that that position can be sold to the evangelical community. "I think the current divisions are partly the fault of the people in my party for not engaging the Christian evangelical community in a serious discussion of what it would take to promote a real culture of life," he said in New York.

Clinton told Democrats, "We cannot be nationally competitive unless we feel comfortable talking about our convictions." Many Democrats will hear that as a call to defend their liberal convictions. But that's not what Clinton was saying. He was telling Democrats to rally the moderate majority on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Embrace the middle and condemn Republicans for dividing the country, was Clinton's message.

Newsweek subsequently revealed that, in a telephone conversation with Kerry during the campaign, Clinton had urged the Democratic nominee to support state measures to ban same-sex marriage. Kerry is reported to have told his aides, "I'm not going to ever do that." In 1996, Kerry was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Clinton, the Great Triangulator, signed the act into law.

Even after three successive defeats in 2000, 2002, and 2004, it will not be easy to get Democrats to triangulate on basic issues of principle. But what else can they do?

Dukakis believes that Democrats still have the advantage on economic issues. He points to evidence from the November 2 election: "In Florida and Nevada -- both states which Bush won -- voters overwhelmingly approved increases in the minimum wage. In Colorado, Arizona, and Texas, voters in major metropolitan areas decisively supported taxing themselves for major expansions in public and metropolitan transit," he said.

"It seems to me, on those fundamental issues, the voters are with us," Dukakis said. And President Bush had better be mindful of that. "If the president of the United States thinks this election was a mandate for privatizing Social Security and cutting taxes for the superrich ... he is delusional," Dukakis said.

In the 1988 campaign, Dukakis was criticized for failing to fight back when he was confronted with the Willie Horton attack ads. Some critics say that Kerry made the same mistake this year when he was confronted with attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In Dukakis's view, Kerry "should have said to the president of the United States, 'Stand up and tell these people to get those ads off the air. You know they're baseless, and if you don't, it goes directly to your character.'

Then Dukakis had second thoughts about whether he has standing to criticize Kerry. "Should he have done that?" asked the man who lost to the first George Bush. "I'm the last guy in the world to try to make that judgment."