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John McCain's least favorite issue

Social and religious conservatives, many of whom have been gloomy about the GOP's '08 electoral prospects, perked up big time when they learned last Thursday that the California Supreme Court had

Social and religious conservatives, many of whom have been gloomy about the GOP's '08 electoral prospects, perked up big time when they learned last Thursday that the California Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage.

They were, of course, outraged. But in a sense their hearts were gladdened, because they think they have been handed the magic-bullet issue that will boost Republican fortunes and perhaps help propel John McCain to the White House. After all, won't this issue distract voters from their worries about health care, the war, and the economy? Why should voters worry so much about losing their houses - when clearly the bigger issue is what gay people might be doing behind the curtains in their houses?

Accordingly, the Family Research Council, one of the top religious right groups, declared on Friday that the California court ruling "has catapulted the issue from semi-dormancy to the forefront of the general election." The social fabric of the nation is at risk, again because of those berobed radical leftists; in the words of religious conservative leader Gary Bauer, the 4-3 ruling was "an egregious exercise in judicial activism of judges wielding raw political power over our most basic values. But that is how the Left has succeeded."

I don't want to dwell on the usual complaints about "judicial activism," except to point out that six of the seven California justices are Republican appointees - including the chief justice, who authored the opinion, and who owes his first judicial appointment to a conservative governor named Ronald Reagan. Religious conservatives, and many of their more secular brethren, typically dismiss as "judicial activism" only those rulings with which they disagree, to the point of being ahistorical about the proper role of courts. It was Alexander Hamilton, after all, who wrote in the Federalist Papers - Number 78 - that it is the "province" of judges to interpret the laws and square them with the constitution.

Anyway, I'm dwelling here on the political context of the ruling. At first glance, this would appear to trigger another season of discomfort for Democrats - as happened in 2004, when Republican operatives, in the aftermath of a somewhat similar ruling by the high court in Massachusetts, arranged to put anti-gay marriage referenda on the ballots in 11 states. This reportedly helped gin up conservative turnout, both for the referenda and for the top man on the ballot, George W. Bush. Some academic studies have even concluded - although this is also disputed - that the anti-marriage ballot referendum in pivotal Ohio effectively put Bush over the top and clinched his re-election.

But this time, I suspect that the most discomfited candidate could actually be John McCain.

Conservatives have all sorts of advice for the guy. They want him to inveigh publicly against gay marriage, and to champion a new California referenda campaign to overturn the state high court ruling. The Family Research Council says: "It's up to him to make this issue a priority in his campaign and rally the support of social conservatives around his position. He must speak openly - and frequently - about the threat this decision poses to the family...we encourage him to show his commitment to marriage by leading the charge..."

Meanwhile, John McCormack at The Weekly Standard (one of Rupert Murdoch's conservative organs) suggests some talking points for McCain's national crusade: "McCain might ask, what exactly would preclude the U.S. Supreme Court, refreshed with a couple of Obama appointees, from declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right in all 50 states?...But it will be up to McCain himself to draw the contrast between his positions and Obama's."

Indeed, Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank, reportedly says that, politically, McCain "has to look for issues that motivate and activate social conservatives. This issue is a gift in that regard." Whalen wants McCain to campaign against gay marriage in the swing states.

But these people are dreaming.

Clearly they don't have a clue about McCain. Even though he has been pandering to conservatives for the past several years, undercutting his so-called "maverick" image in all kinds of ways (he is now for the Bush tax cuts after having voted against them), he really would prefer not to talk about gay people at all, much less lead a moral crusade against the way they might wish to live. He's a traditional Sunbelt conservative, with a strong strain of libertarianism, which means his instinct is to leave people alone.

He never talks about gay marriage, unless asked or compelled to. By my calculations, he has made exactly one statement since the California ruling, and it was filtered through a spokesman: "John McCain supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution...John McCain doesn't believe judges should be making these decisions." Which is a long way from making this issue a priority in his campaign.

And, pragmatically speaking, it would be dicey for him to do so. The one time he put himself on the line for the issue, he was embarrassed by the results. In 2006, the voters of Arizona rejected a ballot initiative banning gay marriage within their borders - after McCain appeared in a TV ad making a pitch for the ban. And that was on his home turf. It's hard to imagine he will now lead a charge against gay marriage in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other swing states - and risk turning off the independent voters whom he needs so badly in November.

Particularly in the eastern swing states, many of those independents tend to be socially tolerant, and even though most do not support gay marriage - a new Pew poll says that only 41 percent of independents back the concept - they are likely to be displeased that a candidate is crusading against it, at a time when the nation has so many more pressing matters.

Indeed, when pollsters ask voters to list their top issue priorities, the gay marriage issue doesn't even register as a blip. Maybe it helped galvanize some conservative turnout in 2004, but even by 2006, the issue had lost some steam. Some activists thought that a few more state ballot initiatives (there were seven) would help the Republicans win congressional races - but, as we now know, the Democrats took both chambers anyway. The Iraq war, and shoddy GOP ethics, were much bigger issues. I was told, way back in June of that year, that the anti-gay ballot maneuvers wouldn't do the trick; in the words of Republican strategist Craig Shirley, most '06 voters wouldn't care about the gay marriage issue, because it "is not relevent to their lives."

And the kind of '08 national crusade envisioned by the religious conservative base would also doom McCain among young voters. Assuming Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, those voters, aged 18 to 29, are already poised to flood his way, at McCain's expense. (The latest Pew poll shows that 58 percent identify themselves as Democrats, and only 33 percent as Republicans, the biggest spread of any age category - and a stark contrast to 1992, when young people were split, 46 percent Democratic and 47 percent GOP). Then consider the fact that support for gay marriage is stronger among young people than in any other age category...and McCain's reticence since the California ruling is even more understandable.

The bottom line is that this court ruling may wind up pinching McCain between his party base and the swing voters he needs to woo. He doesn't want to lead any crusade; he just wants this issue to go away. He knows, even if the religious conservatives do not, that this is not 2004 anymore.