I think most claims of liberal media bias are overblown. At the same time, I do think that reporters often let their cultural predilections drive their coverage of social issues, and the coverage of the gay marriage amendment offers a perfect example. "The New York Times" began its story last Wednesday:
It is a cardinal rule of politics, all the more so for a president who saw his father defeated largely because he failed to heed it fully: Pay attention to the party's base.
In recent weeks, on a variety of fronts, President Bush has done just that, trying to allay the concerns and stoke the spirits of his restive conservative base. His impassioned endorsement on Tuesday of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, after weeks of intensive lobbying by social conservatives, was the culmination of this rapprochement.
But will he pay a price with the centrist voters who so often decide presidential elections, as the Democrats hope? Or is the country at such an ideologically polarized point that the middle simply matters less?
"USA Today" chimed in, "Bush's support of a proposed amendment had long been sought by conservative Christians, who are among the Republican Party's most loyal supporters." And "The Washington Post", in a front page news analysis entitled "A MOVE TO SATISFY CONSERVATIVE BASE," asserted, "So when gay marriages advanced in Massachusetts and San Francisco, Bush felt a need to respond to the cries of social conservatives -- even if it meant losing some swing voters he needs in November." The operating premise of these articles, and most reporting on this topic, is that only the most partisan element of Bush's base supports the amendment. Now, I should say right here that I believe that gays should have the right to marry and I find the amendment morally abhorrent. But I'm far less confident than the press that most people share my view.
First of all, the public rejects gay marriage by a pretty wide margin. Last month the Annenberg Center conducted a poll asking, "Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex?" 31 percent said they favored it, 60 percent opposed it.
Of course, supporting a constitutional amendment is a trickier question. Polls have found contradictory results on the amendment, ranging from around 49-42 opposed to 53-44 in favor. Most polls seem to be clustered in the center. You can find a good collection here. The point is not that people overwhelmingly support an amendment, but that they're evenly divided. It's hardly the case that support is confined to Bush's base. Most polls show support for the amendment in the high forties, which is well into swing voter territory.
And, indeed, the debate is still young, and unfortunately, public opinion is probably more likely to swing toward Bush's position than against. People are naturally reluctant to support constitutional amendments. But, given the intense opposition to gay marriage, people may be persuaded by Bush's argument that an amendment is necessary. Bush's support for the amendment hurts him among libertarians. But it helps him among cultural traditionalists -- giving the president a way to lure blue-collar Democrats alienated by his unpopular economic policies. My understanding of the current political landscape suggests that more of the available swing voters fall into the latter category than the former. (A good guide to the composition of the electorate can be found in Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's new book, The Two Americas.)
Why do reporters assume that the amendment is a fringe concern? Perhaps because nearly all live in big cities, among educated, relatively affluent peers, who hold liberal views on social matters. In Washington and New York, gay marriage is an utterly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the country, it's not.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.
By Jonathan Chait