A version of this article originally appeared on the Harvard Political Review.
I will not say Governor Chris Christie did the right thing when he vetoed a bill that sought to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey. But the amount of criticism he is receiving from gay and liberal activists is undeserved.
Liberals cannot seriously expect a Republican of such national prominence as Christie to sign away his presidential prospects merely for the sake of having same-sex marriage legalized in New Jersey via legislative enactment. I stress this latter point because what actually has gay rights activists angry at the veto is not that it has eliminated all prospects of realizing gay marriage in New Jersey (it has not), but rather that it has forced a ballot campaign on the matter.
Those who regard this as a setback, though, are mistaken — this is a remarkable opportunity to turn the tide on marriage ballot measures. Moreover, the intense liberal backlash against Christie’s veto is hypocritical given that no such animosity was directed against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race when they too expressed opposition to same-sex-marriage.
Why A Ballot Campaign May Be Desirable in New Jersey. The fight for gay marriage should take place in the courts, legislative assemblies, town halls, city councils, and at the ballot box. Frankly, gay rights activists have grown too weary to accept this motto in full. After 31 straight losses at the ballot box, and especially after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the movement for gay rights is scared of ballot measures.
That fear is understandable, but it must not become crippling. Now is the time to pick ourselves up, put on the gloves, and show that we too can win a popular vote. Although as a matter of strategy, it is typically best to keep the issue of gay marriage off the ballot, a special exception should be made for New Jersey. Granted, there is more risk involved with having a ballot campaign than with enacting equality through a state legislature. But given that a majority of people in New Jersey support gay marriage, it is appropriate to take on this added risk in this instance.
For one, a win at the ballot box would mark the first victory of its kind for proponents of marriage equality. Once opponents of gay marriage find themselves on the losing side of a ballot campaign, they will think twice before pressing for another initiative or referendum. Originally, opponents of equality lambasted gay rights activists for relying on judges to enact gay marriage. Most recently, social conservatives have decried the use of “elite” state legislators to achieve the same end. But what argument will traditionalists have left once the people of a state directly sanction same-sex marriage? Moreover, gay rights activists make much of the fact that polls show majority support nationally for same-sex marriage. That is great, but ballot campaigns speak louder than statistics. A ballot win in New Jersey would provide a strong gust of wind in the sails of the marriage equality movement.
The Left’s Hypocrisy. Gay rights activists should redirect the intense ire they have expressed toward Christie in the direction of someone who actually deserves it. Aside from the fact that Christie purports to believe that the designation of marriage should be reserved for only one man and one woman, he has an almost sterling record on gay rights. He has come out in favor of civil unions that grant gay couples the exact same rights under the law as marriages; he supported the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He supports the end of employment discrimination against gays. And he appointed the first openly gay man to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Does that sound like the record of a homophobe to you?
Also, how is Christie’s stance on the issue of gay marriage any different than President Obama’s or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s during the 2008 presidential race? In a 2008 interview with CNN, Obama grounded his opposition to gay marriage in his Christian beliefs. And yet liberals were willing to give Clinton and Obama a break. Many then argued that a candidate who openly supports gay marriage would face difficulty in a general election. Why does that same understanding not extend to Christie? The answer, clearly, is because Christie is a Republican. It is hypocritical for liberals to demand that Christie take a principled stand on this issue when no such demand was seriously made of Clinton or Obama in 2008.
Ultimately, if anyone is to be accused of playing politics with the issue of gay marriage, it is Democrats in New Jersey. In 2010, when Democrats controlled both the governorship and legislature, a bill that sought to legalize gay marriage failed to pass the New Jersey Senate because of the cowardice of 9 Democrats (6 of whom voted against gay marriage and 3 of whom abstained from voting). This loss was all the more tragic given that then Governor Jon Corzine was ready to sign the bill into law.
Flash forward to 2012 when Democrats still control the state legislature, but a Republican is in the governor’s chair. Christie made clear from day one that he would veto any gay marriage bill that got to his desk. So why did Democrats decide to proceed with the bill anyway, if they knew it would be dead on arrival? Clearly to send a political message that Christie was no friend of gay people. This has been nothing more than a pathetic attempt to nail Christie to the cross of bigotry — so much for the argument that Democrats as a matter of principle do not toy with the issue of marriage equality to score political points.
When a bill seeking to legalize gay marriage got to Governor Christie’s desk, he was presented with two options: Take the highroad and sign the bill into law, while at the same time seriously undermining a future presidential run; or veto the bill while pushing for a direct vote from a citizenry highly sympathetic to marriage equality. Was it truly unreasonable for Christie to have chosen the latter option?
I urge gay activists to grow a bit shrewder in identifying who our friends are in the Republican Party. If we have any hope of ridding our national politics of the smell of Santorum, we need to stop attacking the first nationally viable Republican who supports the overwhelming majority of our agenda solely because he disagrees with us on a matter of nomenclature.
Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf