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Gingrich’s 17-Year Culture War Against Gay Marriage Falls Flat

It’s a remarkable coincidence that Newt Gingrich’s latest career move was announced Wednesday morning, moments before the Supreme Court struck down his most consequential legislative victory in the culture wars.

The pictures of Gingrich, just given top billing as the voice “on the right” of CNN’s revived shoutfest “Crossfire,” brought back a flood of recollections about the societal and political situation 17 years ago, when the star-crossed Defense of Marriage Act was written.

Those memories help explain why such a sweeping measure made its way into the federal law books so relatively easily back then and why such a heavy federal stamp of disapproval on an entire category of people has no chance of enactment now.

In the spring of 1996, the Georgian was at the height of his power as the first Republican speaker of the House in four decades. But the “Contract With America,” on which the GOP won control in the previous election, had little to say about hot-button social issues beyond a call to revamp the welfare system, which was actually a goal of both Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. That bill was on the cusp of clearing in an election-year session shaping up to be surprisingly more about collaboration than confrontation.

This wasn’t sitting well with the still small but rhetorically forceful group of Republicans at the Capitol who viewed protecting “traditional values” as their top priority. Nor did it meet with the growing number of their supporters in well-funded outside groups on the right.

These conservative forces decided their cause would be legislation to discourage same-sex marriages, mainly by denying all manner of federal benefits to legally married gay couples. It didn’t matter to them that the phenomenon they wanted to eliminate didn’t yet exist anywhere in the United States. Nor were they slowed by the notion they were proposing something the GOP was against at its core — federal intervention into matters that were the exclusive province of the states.

The political arguments, advanced by Gingrich as forcefully as anyone, readily carried the day. Pushing the bill in the heart of campaign season, they reckoned, would guarantee an easy win in a Congress where the gay rights lobby wasn’t much of a force (yet), and when Democrats in close races would oppose the measure at considerable peril.

And, Gingrich and his forces strategized, their effort would raise the GOP millions in donations, rally cultural conservatives in swing states to support presidential challenger Bob Dole, and drive an awkward wedge between Clinton and his gay supporters.

Their under-the-Dome predictions were correct: The bill cleared four months after its introduction, unthinkable speed for a high-profile domestic policy proposal now. And it won with support from two-thirds of the Democrats in both the House and Senate along with every Republican except one.

The electoral dividends Gingrich and other GOP leaders forecast, however, never came to pass. All the Democrats who voted against it were liberals in safe seats. Polling by Gallup found 68 percent of Americans opposed to legalizing gay marriage and only 27 percent in favor, so there weren’t many swing voters to motivate. Clinton promised to sign the bill early on, civil rights groups all agreed to look the other way rather than complicate his re-election race by complaining, and he won more decisively than the first time.

As a way to freeze public opinion or stem a societal shift, DOMA of course proved to be a colossal failure long before the court’s 5-4 decision Wednesday declaring it unconstitutional.

Since last fall, Gallup has twice found a solid 53 percent majority support for same-sex couples getting married. A majority of the Senate, three of them Republicans, agrees with the public. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, where 30 percent of Americans live. There were three openly gay men in the House the year DOMA became law. Now there’s a lesbian senator and five openly gay men and a bisexual woman in the House.

Clinton himself now says the court was right to throw out the law he signed. And, after ending his own presidential bid last year, Gingrich said that while he still views marriage as between a man and a woman “no matter what politicians decide,” Republicans need to realize “the momentum is clearly now in the direction in finding some way to accommodate and deal with reality.”

That probably comes as cold comfort to Steve Gunderson, who now runs the trade association of for-profit colleges but cast the only Republican vote against DOMA when he was a Wisconsin congressman (and the first openly gay member of the House GOP).

In his 1996 floor speech, Gunderson said he would have been willing to vote “to reaffirm that the word marriage represents a union between a man and a woman,” if only the speaker would ease off a bit on the denial-of-benefits provisions.

“Why should my partner of 13 years not be entitled to the same health insurance and survivor benefits that individuals around here, my colleagues with second and third wives, are able to give to them?” he asked during the debate. “My party insisted that this small step of basic decency and respect not be included in this bill,” and that “exposes this legislative initiative for the mean political game it is.”

Seventeen years later, Gunderson and millions of others have the rights they were after. And Gingrich will be left to explain his reversal of fortune at his new gig as paid pundit.

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