The Republicans’ moralizing anti-gay crusade played a crucial role
in George W. Bush’s re-election. The Rove-Bush decision to surf on the anti-gay
backlash came about in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, in the spring
of 2003, to overturn the so-called sodomy laws.

After that decision, there was a precipitous 20-point Gallup poll drop in numbers of those who thought gay sex should be legal, and support for civil unions also slalomed downward.

Under the guidance of Commissar Karl Rove, the Republicans crafted a strategy to make political hay out of the anti-gay backlash and to fuel its intensity, just as soon as the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided that denying marriage equality to gay people was a violation of fundamental civil rights. The tools to make gays a political scapegoat that would mobilize the 4 million evangelicals who failed to vote in 2000 — and at the same time appeal to Catholic adepts of anti-gay papal precepts — were the Federal Marriage Amendment and the 11 anti-gay state referenda on the marriage issue. These measures were seen as wedge issues to divide the traditional Democratic coalition by prejudiced appeals to blacks and Latinos. Last year, among blacks, the drop on legalizing gay marriage was, at 23 points, even sharper than the national average. A New York Times poll from August last year confirmed the backlash Gallup found, especially among blacks and Latinos, with strong majorities opposing gay marriage — 65 to 28 for blacks, 54 to 40 for Latinos. Out of numbers like these came the Bush-Rove anti-gay strategy.

This is, after all, a country drowning in censorious, politicized religiosity. And race is no longer the great political dividing line in this country — region and religion have replaced it. The exit polls on Tuesday night showed that Bush won a whopping 42 percent of the Latino vote, in large part thanks to the power of anti-gay propaganda in a community — already marinated in macho cultural traditions — that gets a lot of its cohesiveness and sense of identity from homophobic Pentecostal churches.

Moreover, 21 percent of voters said that “moral values” — more than either Iraq or the economy — were what determined their vote. In many states the GOP used TV ads featuring two men kissing to fan the anti-gay marriage flames. Nowhere did the strategy work better than in Ohio, where the southern tier of counties is the cultural equivalent of a Deep South state, steeped in religiously inculcated homo-hate. Ohio is also a state where traditionally Democratic working-class Catholic voters — whom Kerry failed to bind to him with an economic program that could arouse their passions — were peeled off in sufficient numbers to reduce Kerry’s margins in the larger cities. And the sweeping anti-gay referendum in Ohio — which outlaws civil unions or any lesser legal recognition of same-sex couples, as well as gay marriage — passed by 2 to 1. Huge anti-gay majorities were rolled up as well in all the other 10 states with referenda, with the smallest margin of victory for the anti-gay measure in Oregon (a supposedly tolerant state where it won by a resounding 14 points).

The anti-gay crusade was also crucial in mobilizing the religious in support of Republican Senatorial candidates in crucial races around the country. The Democrats’ Senate leader, Tom Daschle, was targeted in South Dakota by his victorious GOP opponent, John Thune, on the gay issue — a relentless barrage of TV and radio ads portrayed Daschle as a supporter of gay marriage (for opposing the FMA) and helped Thune squeak through.

Similarly, in Kentucky — where the anti-gay referendum passed by 75 percent to 25 percent — a nasty gay-baiting campaign by mad Republican incumbent Jim Bunning helped defeat his Democratic opponent, whom Bunning implied (falsely) was gay. Bunning was so gaga, his staff had to hide him for the final weeks of the campaign for fear of what lunatic things he might say — yet by surfing the anti-gay backlash, he, too, squeaked through.

On Election Day, there were widespread reports, from Nevada to Florida, of guys in very bad drag shouting “Gay marriage!” holding pro-gay-marriage signs, and accosting voters outside polling stations. (Democrats took photos of these costumed GOP operatives for later identification as Bushniks). More dirty tricks: Phony robocalls in Wisconsin and a number of other states, purporting to be from the Kerry campaign, told swing voters, “A vote for Kerry is a vote for gay marriage — it’s our time.”

Scurrilous gay-baiting literature abounded. And, of course, the Bushniks could count on the fervent homophobia of Bush’s shock troops from the Christian right (heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars through patronage disguised as “faith-based initiatives”) to hammer home the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ anti-gay message — and the sweeping Republican victory.

The Democrats were bereft of any strategy to fight this politicization of the anti-gay backlash. Across the country, the Democrats’ lawyers engaged in a furious struggle to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot — but didn’t lift a finger to engage in a similar challenge to the petitions for the anti-gay referenda, for fear of being tarred with the lavender brush. So, in referendum states like Ohio, the Reagan Democrats of yesterday — particularly married women and working-class men — became the Bush Democrats of today.

Kerry might have won them back if he’d hammered away at the economy. But his campaign ignored economic issues, and the national exit polls showed voters wound up trusting Bush more than Kerry on the economy by 48 to 46 percent. In Ohio, Kerry’s failure was even starker — while 62 percent of the Buckeye State’s voters said in exit polls they thought the economy was “bad,” they split even at 48 percent on who’d do better to get them out of the mess in a state that had lost 250,000 jobs. It’s well known that bigotry always increases in times of economic insecurity and penury. This year, among the economically hard-pressed, it was therefore easy to vent anger and frustration on those privileged, kissing, homo DINKS (Double Income, No Kids), who are portrayed as enjoying the fruits of luxurious consumerism by TV minstrelsy like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Our high-fashion gay Stepin Fetchits played right into the GOP-fostered perception of gays as seeking special privileges, and of Democrats as elitists. The reasons for the GOP’s successful strategy have been brilliantly explained in Tom Franks’ latest book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Franks has understood that the anti–gay marriage crusade is a particularly insidious form of Republican “class warfare.”

And unless Democrats wake up to Franks’ message, and develop a populist strategy to defang the anti-gay crusaders, electoral gay-bashing will continue to doom the Dems to defeat at the polls in many regions of the country.

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