Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I suspect that millions of Americans are a lot like me: tall, ruggedly handsome in an overfed sense, with an abiding love of cured meats. But that’s not important right now.

I also suspect that millions of Americans share my attitude toward the subject of gay marriage: Enough already. Whether you’re for it or against it, many of us just don’t want to hear about it anymore — like those commercials featuring mothers and daughters walking on the beach having conversations nobody ever wanted to overhear.

The reasons why are complicated, with a diverse set of answers, including everything from homophobia to a simple belief that there are more important things in the world.

For me, my instinctual response to such knotty social questions is to do nothing. I’m really quite serious. My hero Calvin Coolidge once said, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

Indeed, for a while now, the Democrats and Republicans have been following my advice. While the leadership of both parties have been saying they’re against gay marriage, neither party has done anything about it. The Democrats don’t want to tick off their base, which supports gay marriage, and the Republicans don’t want to risk being called gay bashers.

But while I would normally applaud such bipartisan do-nothing-ism as the height of statesmanship, gay marriage seems to be the 10th problem in Coolidge’s axiom, because the facts on the ground are changing fast.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, defying a state law (and presumably his own mayoral oath), passed by referendum in 2000, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. And in Massachusetts, judges have told the legislature that the state constitution requires gay marriage whether the people want it or not.

Fortunately, I have another tool in my utility belt for just such occasions: federalism. This is the brilliant system conceived by our founders that guarantees more happiness than any other political system.

As longtime readers know, I have little passion for pure democracy — a system by which 51 percent of the people can give 49 percent of the people a wedgie. If America were a pure democracy, the citizens of the 10 most populous states could impose their will on the other 40 states.

But under a federal system, each state can establish its own rules, within reason, for how it wants to live. Mormons makeup a minority of Americans, but they are a huge majority of Utahans, and so Utah is more friendly to Mormon values than Vermont is.

The glass-is-half-full news has been that liberals, who’ve despised federalism with increasing intensity since the New Deal, suddenly learned a newfound respect for the concept on the issue of gay marriage.

Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, for example, touts the genius of federalism whenever he can, including most recently on Fox News Sunday when he indicated once again that he thinks having same-sex marriage legal in some states but illegal in others is an acceptable compromise.

The glass-is-half-empty news is that conservatives are suddenly less enamored with federalism. For a host of reasons — some highly technical others flatly moral — many conservatives want to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage in all 50 states.

I’ve been opposed to that for two reasons. The first is that I’m not a fair-weather friend of federalism. Real diversity, as the founders envisioned it, requires accepting that some communities will do things you don’t approve of. The second reason is technical: I favor civil unions and I can’t get a straight answer — pardon the pun — on whether any or all of the proposed amendments would allow them.

But the events of San Francisco have made things worse. First, Mayor Newsom is giving marriage licenses not only to San Franciscans — which, again, is illegal — but out-of-state couples as well. So much for each community minding its own business.

More significant is the mixture of celebration and quiescence from gay marriage proponents. My friend Andrew Sullivan is nigh-upon giddy about this mass flouting of California’s democratically decided laws. The Human Rights Campaign officially “lauds” Newsom’s stunt. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the only criticism Barney Frank could manage was to tell the mayor his timing was bad since this is an election year. In other words, breaking the law next year would have been fine.

The trouble with all of this is that a federalism-based compromise only works if you trust that the other side is acting in good faith. If Frank & Co. have no respect for the law of California, why should we expect them to respect the laws anywhere?

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