No Straight Answers, Four Years Later

No Straight Answers, Four Years Later

As Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation hearings this week for secretary of state this week made clear once again, the administration that won re-election, in part due to the popular perception that its candidate was the more likely of the two running last year to say what it means and mean what it says, is in fact inordinately averse to being pinned down on precisely what it believes about critical policy questions.

Under sharp questioning from several Democratic senators, Rice continued a pattern established most brazenly by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld of bobbing and weaving on the fundamental questions of why the U.S. is in Iraq now, what the earlier rationales and justifications for our engagement there were and who said what and when about these issues.

And their boss, Pres. George W. Bush proved once again this weekend how much he enjoys finessing the nuances of the debate over same-sex marriage to narrowcast specific messages to particular constituencies.

The latest round of marriage games began last Friday, when Bush granted a rare sit-down interview to the Washington Post as a preview on his second term goals. Perhaps because he was speaking to one of the most prominent representatives of the print media, the president’s comments on the effort to enact a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage reflected a sophisticated acknowledgement of political reality.

“Senators have made it clear that so long as [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen,” Bush said of the effort by right-wing groups to bring the issue back to Capitol Hill, after it fell well short of the needed two-thirds votes in both houses last summer. “I’d take their admonition seriously…Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate.”

The comment had a predictable effect. The weekend news cycle prominently featured the story that the president would not persist in his effort to push the anti-gay measure through Congress. As he gears up for his fight to privatize Social Security and scrambles to hold onto vestiges of patience on the part of Americans for his crumbling Iraq policy, it was not unwise for Bush to send out a pre-inaugural signal that he was not going to dick around with a losing, punitive re-drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, the administration has taken few risks that the view that he was backing down would actually harden among his most zealous Christian right allies. Even before the Post interview went into print, White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the newspaper to clarify, insisting that the president was “willing to spend political capital” on Capitol Hill on the marriage amendment, even if the prospects for success while DOMA stands are dim. Dan Bartlett, a former communications chief for Bush who is now a senior counselor to the president, used identical language on several Sunday morning news programs.

Remember, though, that this is an administration that leaves nothing on the public relations front to chance.

Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who stunned the civilized world in 2003 with his willingness to engage an Associated Press reporter in a straight-faced discussion linking gay sex to bestiality, was trotted out to vouch for the president’s bona fides on facing down gay marriage.

“I can tell you, I’m not going to break faith with social conservatives, and I know the president won’t either,” Santorum said on “Fox News Sunday,” in a textbook case of narrowcasting.

And on Wednesday, on the eve of the inauguration, Ken Mehlman, the president’s re-election chief, assumed the leadership of the Republican National Committee, with the statement, “We can deepen the GOP by identifying and turning out Americans who vote for president but who often miss off-year elections and agree with our work on behalf of a culture of life, our promoting marriage, and a belief in our Second Amendment heritage,” in a ritualistic invocation of GOP appeals to abortion opponents, anti-gay religious activists and the gun crowd.

Some on the right, like Focus on the Family, of course complained about Bush’s lack of fidelity, but rest assured that in inauguration ball after inauguration ball on Thursday night, plenty, perhaps all of the president’s men, will be on hand to tightly grasp the hand of anyone who trembles at the prospect that two gay men or two lesbians might legally get married.