But Bush also endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples, along with a state-based rather than federal approach permitting such, as an incumbent president running for reelection in 2004. He did so in defiance of his party, which opposed civil unions in its platform. "I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do so," he said that October. Meanwhile his vice president, Dick Cheney, opposed the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that was a popular idea among social conservatives at the time. Cheney did this while campaigning in Iowa, a well-known bastion of GOP grassroots social conservatism, in the summer of 2004:
At a campaign stop in Iowa, Mr. Cheney, who has a daughter who is a
lesbian, said on Tuesday that he favored the right of states, rather
than the federal government, to define marriage, and, with his daughter
Mary in mind, said ''freedom means freedom for everyone'' to enter
''into any kind of relationship they want.''
As Republicans seek to find a new way forward in the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA, it's worth recalling that one frequently discussed proposed path -- backing civil unions but not full marriage equality -- would just take the GOP back to where its successful presidential candidate was in 2004.
Romney, the more conservative candidate who lost where Bush won, opposed both gay marriage and civil unions in 2012.
The picture with Bush was hardly one of straightforward support for gay unions, of course. He also backed a proposed constitutional amendment to forbid same-sex marriage. At the same time, he benefited from an aggressive state-by-state campaign to turn out evangelical voters opposed to giving gay unions the same standing as heterosexual ones.
That was the genius of compassionate conservatism as party strategy: a small helping of moderate rhetoric at the top never prevented the hardest-right elements in Bush's party from getting their way on social issues, even as the gentler tone helped woo a broader base of support for the president. From a New York Times post-election analysis:
Proposed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage
increased the turnout of socially conservative voters in many of the 11
states where the measures appeared on the ballot on Tuesday, political
analysts say, providing crucial assistance to Republican candidates
including President Bush in Ohio and Senator Jim Bunning in Kentucky ....
[T]he ballot measures also appear to have acted like magnets for thousands
of socially conservative voters in rural and suburban communities who
might not otherwise have voted, even in this heated campaign, political
analysts said. And in tight races, those voters -- who historically have
leaned heavily Republican -- may have tipped the balance.
So now Bush, in response to a journalist in Zambia asking about whether gay marriage is against Christian values, said, "I shouldn't be taking a speck out of someone else's eye when I have a log in my own."