Winning the Prop 8 fight will now take a last minute turnaround, and our message in the next two weeks cannot be a tame appeal to “fairness” or even an attack on the “lies” of the other campaign. But I have the rising fear that it may be too late to reverse direction, absent a sudden burst of opposition by the governor and the state’s top leaders.
Throughout this campaign, we have once again hid the face of same-sex couples and given a free pass to those in the middle of the electorate who are uncomfortable with gay relationships. Instead of challenging that atavistic premise, we have nodded our collective heads and said something on the order of “Hey, we understand that gay couples make you a little queasy, but for God’s sake don’t write us out of the constitution.”
You know what that message actually means? It means that it’s just fine to feel queasy. It implies that we ourselves feel queasy in a way. We can see your point! It’s a losing strategy and it has lost us every same-sex marriage election, save one (Arizona 2004) that we’ve ever fought.
I read that when newsman Rex Wockner challenged this approach, our campaign leaders told him that the ads weren’t directed at our community, they were directed at the swing voters. Focus groups showed that these fence sitters were indeed swayed by the namby pampy style.
Well, of course we want to direct our message to the middle. But you know what? There’s another way to sway those voters. There’s a positive message to be sent about what kind of state you want to live in, what kind of person you want to be, and what kind of assumptions you’re bringing to the ballot box. . . . Who are you, swing voter? Look in the mirror and make a decision. And while you’re at it, take a look at a few gay couples who have not brought civilization to its knees by getting married. Look at their kids, their lives, their happiness, their futures. Were these messages ever tested in the focus groups? How many approaches were considered before we fell back on the tried and failed defensive political postures of the past?
A positive message would have pre-empted attack ads. Instead we fell into their traps, forcing ourselves to insist that California can become a marriage equality state without a corresponding commitment to equal rights throughout its institutions. No, gay marriage won’t be taught in schools if Prop 8 fails. But neither will the idea that gay marriage is wrong. We can’t tell the voters that they can vote against Prop 8 on one hand, and preserve a homophobic public policy on the other. They can’t, and they know it and we should have asked, not just for the status quo of the last five months, but for a future of respect. We could have described that future in an attractive way and I think we’d be in better shape today if we had.
Andrew Sullivan expresses similar doubts about the campaign to defeat Prop 8 here.
Trying to win "gay marriage" through a campaign that never mentions "gays" and hardly ever mentions "marriage" does seem counter-intuitive. I doubt voters can be bamboozled into thinking that a consequence of a "no" vote on Prop 8 is anything other than the (probably) permanent establishment of gay marriage and an implicit public declaration that homosexuality is unobjectionable. A vote against Prop 8 is a vote for gay marriage; a vote for Prop 8 is a vote against gay marriage. For most voters, pro and con, I doubt it's any more complicated than that.
What's interesting to me is that both sides have avoided the merits of allowing gay couples to marry. Gay-marriage supporters have done so, with focus-group tested messages in hand, because they suspect a large group of people even in a progressive state are still deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality and certainly don't like gay marriage. Gay-marriage opponents have done so, I presume, because they know that Americans don't like to be seen as discriminating or opposing civil rights. So they paint gay marriage, instead, as itself a threat to the rights of religious people and parents. The theory seems to be that the side that's most seen as defending rights is the side that wins.
I doubt that any months-long campaign of television ads, no matter their content, could really change the basic impulses most people have on this issue. Those impulses, whether they lead you to support or oppose gay marriage, are developed over a lifetime of experience. Very few people come to this issue without some fairly strongly held views. Such views are hard to dislodge.
Still, there's something to Rostow's hope that one day gay-marriage supporters might actually argue that gay marriage is a good thing. If we're going to lose these ballot fights anyway, why not fight the good fight rather than the agnostic one?