For Politicians, a Marriage of Inconvenience

When a federal judge ruled last week that a California ballot measure banning same-sex marriage violated the Constitution, he complicated the political strategy of Meg Whitman, the personable Republican billionaire who wants to be our next governor. Yet while most close observers of California politics think the decision is either irrelevant to the race or puts Ms. Whitman in a tough corner, there’s also a chance it could play out in a way that gives her an edge on her opponent, Attorney General (and former governor) Jerry Brown.

After disposing of a more conservative rival in the Republican primary, Ms. Whitman has been trying to court independent voters, especially women, in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. She has favored a woman’s right to abortion, moderated the anti-immigration views she expressed in the primary race and supported the state’s existing laws providing civil unions and other protections for gays and lesbians.

On Wednesday, when Judge Vaughn Walker struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment, Ms. Whitman tried to avoid the issue by saying it was the first step in a long legal process. Soon enough, however, with social conservatives outraged by the ruling, Ms. Whitman’s campaign put out a statement quoting her as saying that marriage should be “between a man and a woman.”

That was the politically safe position that every major presidential candidate, including Barack Obama, took in 2008. Same-sex marriage, a wedge issue for social conservatives, has come out the loser in all 31 states where it’s been tested on the ballot.

But in California, the division on the issue is far narrower than elsewhere, and the long-term trend favors same-sex marriage. Proposition 8, the ban invalidated by Judge Walker’s ruling, passed in 2008 with 52 percent of the vote. Two recent surveys, one by the venerable Field Poll and another by the Public Policy Institute of California, have found a shift since then, with slight majorities favoring same-sex marriage.

Most California statewide officeholders cheered Walker’s ruling, led by Jerry Brown, a vocal supporter of gay rights. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said the ruling enhanced California’s “growing reputation of treating all people and their relationships with equal respect and dignity.”

The state’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, lauded the judge as well. Ms. Boxer is seeking re-election; her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, had supported the same-sex marriage ban, saying it was the will of the voters. But even Ms. Fiorina has been playing down the issue.

Stuart K. Spencer, a retired Republican political consultant who in 1967 helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s winning campaign for California governor, said that most statewide candidates will avoid talking about same-sex marriage because the electorate is so closely divided.

On the other hand, Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, tells me that overturning the ban could provide a mild boost for Democrats “if it fires up the base and shakes Democrats out of their lethargy.” And Allan Hoffenblum, a nonpartisan political analyst, believes that same-sex marriage is a digression for candidates in a state where the jobless rate is above 12 percent and voters are disgusted with the repeated failure of the Legislature and the governor to balance the budget.

Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with either the Brown or Boxer campaigns, however, believes that Judge Walker’s ruling is “a short-term plus for Jerry Brown and another long-term nail in the demographic coffin of the Republican Party.”

Well, if history is any guide, it is more likely that same-sex marriage may lose its potency as a political issue. In 1994, after an emotional anti-immigrant campaign during another economic downturn, California voters approved Proposition 187, which would have denied most health and educational benefits to illegal immigrants. When the law was challenged in the courts, the issue largely disappeared from the political radar screen. (Most of it was thrown out as unconstitutional in the late 1990s.)

Similarly, in 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which did away with most state and local government affirmative action programs. This issue also declined in political importance as the initiative took a long detour through the courts before finally being upheld as constitutional this summer.

Given this history, how could the issue actually help Ms. Whitman? While an abstract legal ruling, subject to appeal, may not bring conservatives out in droves for a candidate they don’t see as a true believer, a rush of same-sex marriages — and news media images of gays and lesbians at these ceremonies — could bring a backlash at the polls in November.

This cannot happen if the ruling remains under a stay, first imposed by Judge Walker on Wednesday. That will depend on more rulings likely involving the judge, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and perhaps the Supreme Court.

This raises another question: even if the issue stays on the front burner, can Ms. Whitman take advantage of it? Signs are not promising. Her recent efforts to woo centrist voters and keep conservatives on board have not gone well. Last week she was booed and picketed when she appeared before a Latino group to discuss her immigration views. She was chastised by two popular conservative Southern California radio talk show hosts for refusing to back the repeal of a law that calls for reducing California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In any case, it’s safe to say that the legal journey on same-sex marriage is just beginning, and few are willing to wager over which way it will turn out. The question for now, though, is whether same-sex marriage will be an effective wedge issue come November.

Lou Cannon, a biographer of Ronald Reagan and an editorial adviser and columnist for the State Net Capitol Journal.