From a practical standpoint, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' emotional about-face on gay marriage last week was next to meaningless. All it meant was that the City Council wouldn't have to take the time to override a mayoral veto on its way to officially opposing the state of California in a state Supreme Court case seeking marriage equality for same-sex couples (you can read more about that on Page 10).
But in the broader political scheme--locally and perhaps nationally--Sanders' reversal could be monumental. Time will tell.
This much is certain: Sanders' move was consistent with the trajectory of American public opinion. According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, in 1996, 27 percent of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage. By spring 2006, that number had risen to 39 percent before falling several months later to 33 percent. (Support tends to falter when the debate heightens. It did so in 2004 when San Francisco attempted to marry same-sex couples; in 2006, rhetoric amid the midterm elections might have done the trick.) Conversely, opposition to gay marriage fell from 65 percent in 1996 to 51 percent in spring 2006 before rising to 55 percent last summer.
Any honest analysis of the trend would predict that majority support for same-sex marriage is not far away, especially given that polls of high-school students show far greater support for legalizing same-sex marriage than do polls of adults.
We've been here before. Consider that 90 percent of American adults opposed interracial marriage in 1948, the year the California Supreme Court legalized it. That number had fallen to 72 percent by 1967. By 1991--surprisingly recent--those opposed to interracial marriage had become the minority.
So, Sanders, whose initial intent to veto the City Council's action was based on a concern that flip-flopping would be viewed by the electorate as a sign of weakness, ended up showing remarkable leadership when he let down his guard and revealed his true nature, saying he simply couldn't stand up and tell his lesbian daughter and his homosexual staff members and acquaintances that they are second-class citizens.
Sanders is a genuinely decent human being and a libertarian when it comes to social issues. In other words, he's our kind of Republican. His sudden strong stance in favor of equality under the law could split the Republicans locally and isolate the wing of the party populated by the sort intolerant bigots who want to teach Christianity in public schools, keep people like Terri Schiavo from dying with dignity, stop potentially groundbreaking stem-cell research, make abortion illegal and much more dangerous and strip gay citizens of their constitutional rights.
We hope Sanders has emboldened moderate Republicans who are uncomfortable being associated with this noisy minority. We hope they see his move as a signal that it's OK to denounce discrimination, that there's nothing wrong with believing that sexual orientation is just as innate as skin color, that it's OK to oppose religion's intrusion into public policy.
Of course, even if that minority is isolated, its members can sway the next mayoral election, especially if a high-profile Democrat enters the race. If that happens, Sanders could lose both Democrats and religious conservatives. That puts Democratic Party leaders in a bind: Do they enter the fray and risk handing the keys to the mayor's office to right-winger Steve Francis? Suddenly, Sanders doesn't look so bad, especially if his gay-marriage switcheroo is a sign that he's going to stop heeding the bad advice of his political handlers and instead lead with his heart.
It would be nice if moderate Republican leaders across the country followed in Sanders' footsteps. Sanders made national news last week, so we know that the fact that the Republican mayor of the eighth largest city in the country--one that is perceived to be conservative--pledged support for marriage equality hasn't slipped their notice. It would be nice if social moderates gained influence over the national Republican Party, ended its support for discrimination and pushed the bigots to the fringe, where they belong.
If that were to happen, the rest of us--we liberal populists and you fiscal conservatives--could first get down to the serious business of removing the corrupting influence of money in politics, and then engage in an adult debate over how big or small the government should be in our society and how free the free market should be. That's what would remain in the absence of wedge issues, right? Who should have access to affordable healthcare and who should pay for it? How sturdy should the social safety net be? How can we diversify our neighborhoods economically and get more people into affordable homeownership? Who should pay more taxes and who should pay less?
In any case, we'd like to thank Sanders as well as Republican City Councilmember Jim Madaffer--who spoke eloquently about the role of the gay-marriage issue in the larger realm of civil rights--for what they did. We'll continue to disagree on other matters, but we won't forget this one.
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