What's the best way to describe how the once-formidable Republican Party is struggling? Is the GOP Jake LaMotta, stubbornly rushing into punches (the Iraq war) and getting pounded into a final pathetic retirement (K Street consulting firms)? Is it Doug Flutie, abandoning a tattered playbook (Rovism) and throwing a final Hail Mary pass (war with Iran) to triumph over Miami (Nancy Pelosi)?
Neither of these really evokes the ploy President Bush Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are trying out today and tomorrow. For the first time since 2004, Frist and the Republican majority will bring the Federal Marriage Amendment to a vote. In a few weeks, Frist will bring another constitutional amendment to the floor: the much-delayed, much-debated, much-distracting permanent ban on burning the American flag. The GOP is struggling, but not like a prizefighter or a football player. It's struggling like a man who cheats on his wife and buys her $1,000 worth of flowers to cushion the blow. Too little, too late, and actually kind of an insult.
Sure, much of the GOP's social conservative base is rooting for the party to pass a gay marriage amendment. (There's less enthusiasm for the flag desecration ban.) The mighty Family Research Council has been lobbying senators and marshalling conservative support at a fever pitch, scheduling events over the weekend, melting Senate phones with grassroots phone calls. According to Tom McClusky, the FRC's vice president of government affairs and the point man on the marriage amendment effort, the marriage debate has as much pull among social conservatives as the abortion debate. "It's an extremely important issue, if not the most important issue."
The issue is coming up now, at least in part, because President Bush managed to tee off those social conservatives only two months after he was re-elected. In January 2005, Bush told The Washington Post that he wouldn't lobby the Senate to move ahead on a marriage amendment, because "so long as [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen." Flash forward to June 2006 and the religious right is one of the only voting blocs still in the GOP's corner. In a radio address on Saturday that previewed today's blockbusting speech, Bush did everything but grab a bullhorn to shout "I can hear you, the whole world can hear you, and the people who married those gay folks will hear from all of us real soon."
There's a hitch. Like the wife bitterly accepting the huge "I'm sorry" bouquet from the philanderer, social conservatives aren't falling for the sudden display of charm. The new push for the amendment is too cute by half, rolled out after obvious displays of hand-wringing meant to convince moderates that, no, the Republican leadership didn't really hate gays. First Lady Laura Bush came out against the amendment, a nice gesture that means absolutely nothing policy-wise. FRC president Tony Perkins spent more than a year grousing about Bush's lack of interest in the amendment, noting last week to The New York Times that "the day after [the 2004 election], the president began a crusade to reform Social Security and it went nowhere." Social conservatives are smart, and they've noticed that the marriage vote only comes up a few months before the GOP hits the polls, a move that signals less-than-Joan of Arc-like commitment to their beliefs. "It's unfortunate that it's coming up just in election years," says the FRC's McClusky.
The flag desecration amendment is moving ahead with a similar lack of enthusiasm. After Orrin Hatch's version of the law went through the Judiciary committee in May, there was no call for further debate. Only two senators showed up in subcommittee to discuss marking the bill up. "There's probably not going to be a hearing," says Terri Schroeder, a senior ACLU lobbyist who works on the issue. "I mean, no real hearing about what 'desecration' means or what the limits of the First Amendment are. This is just using the Constitution for political purposes." The push for a vote on the amendment (which will be much closer to the required 2/3 majority than the marriage amendment) is a way for members to head home after the Fourth of July trumpeting their patriotism and nailing First Amendment nags for not "protecting our flag." Both of these votes are ploys to get Republicans excited about keeping their senators in power. Neither will have the intended effect. Republicans aren't in the doldrums because they're slacking off in the defense of marriage or letting flag-burners run wild in the streets. Their supporters are giving up because the party won't fight the tougher fights on spending and immigration. Those are the issues where conservatives and libertarians have given up on the GOP, and done so with fanfare.
Take the issue of spending. Unlike the immigration question, there's broad consensus among libertarians and conservatives about what the ruling party should do. Discontent has raged from the pages of this magazine to the studio of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, a dyed-red-in-the-wool Republican if ever there was one. The blog-based activists of PorkBusters, founded to lobby Congress to cut discretionary spending to defray the costs of Hurricane Katrina, have made powerful allies and enemies in less than a year. The GOP Congress' spending, and Bush's refusals to veto new spending, have weakened the party far more than any slowness to act on gay weddings or burning flags.
"They would solve a lot of their problems overnight if they tackled overspending," says Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But they're dug in." The majority party gave up years ago on actually cutting spending or entitlements, terrified that doing so would give Democrats an opening. Hence the Medicare Drug Benefit and No Child Left Behind, concocted to take away Democrats' poll leads on health care and education. Hence the pork barrel projects of Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and the rest of the skittish majority in both houses. They saw how spending projects kept the Democrats in power for forty years, long after voters should have kicked them out. Spending cuts and drastic government reforms could help them reconnect with the base or even win over voters, but that's a risk, and they don't want to take risks. As Sabato points out, votes on gay marriage and flag burning amendments, which they're almost sure to lose, are "almost free votes. They excite some of the conservatives without actual policy consequences."
If Republicans convince themselves that social conservative "free votes" are going to save their majority, they should remember the last time they went to this particular gift shop. Last year a red-hot media frenzy over the "culture of life" gave the GOP majority a chance to box in the Democrats on another moral issue. The party interrupted its legislative calendar to force a lopsided "yes" vote on what one senator's aide called "a great political issue" that would excite "the pro-life base." And on March 20 last year, the House and Senate voted to transfer jurisdiction of Terri Schiavo's case from Florida to the federal courts. Approval of the GOP and the president took a quick nosedive. They haven't yet recovered their pre-Schiavo political strength.
It shouldn't be hard for Republicans to see why they're in danger of losing their majority. Voter anger over immigration and spending has manifested itself in citizen groups patrolling the border, challenging them in primaries, and bussing reporters to the sites of shameful pork-barrel projects. Going back to the story of the failing marriage, one spouse has known for a while what the other one's up to. The source of her anger is clear. Maybe the wife doesn't want a huge bouquet and an apology. Maybe she wants her husband to quit screwing around.