Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum almost certainly prompted many LGBT people watching Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate to hit the rewind button when he criticized Iran because it “tramples the rights of gays.”
But the large and very vocal audience inside the Iowa State auditorium watching the debate in Ames, Iowa, met former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s statement in defense of civil unions with a stony silence.
It was a highly contentious debate –the third nationally televised debate for Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for president in 2012. There were several head-turning zingers, and combative attacks on fellow candidates (and reporters asking the questions).
None of the eight candidates on the stage strayed from their already stated positions on marriage for same-sex couples, but there was some pushing and prodding for several of the candidates to move even farther to the right.
Santorum staked out his more-right-than-anybody-else position on marriage licenses for same-sex couples by taking stabs at other candidates.
He went after U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota for saying — in a New Hampshire debate in June — that she would not, as president, try to change an individual state’s marriage equality law. He pointed out the incongruity between her position on that while saying she would try to change an individual state’s laws requiring citizens to buy health insurance.
Santorum, who repeatedly portrayed himself as a defender of “morals,” also attacked U.S. Rep. Ron Paul for supporting the right of states to decide their own marriage laws.
A reporter on the panel of journalists posing questions to the candidates asked Paul about Santorum’s criticism of his position on marriage between same-sex partners, noting that Santorum had said publicly that Paul’s logic would provide support for states allowing polygamy.
“What’s your response to that?” asked the reporter.
“That’s sort of like asking the question, ‘If the states wanted to legalize slavery’ or something like that –that is so past reality that no state is going to do that.
“On the issue of marriage,” said Paul, “I think marriage should be between a single man and a single woman and that the federal government shouldn’t be involved. I want less government involvement. I don’t want to have the federal government having a marriage police. I want the states to deal with it if they have to, if they need to….
“Really, why do we have to have a license just to get married? Why don’t we just go to the church? And what other individuals do — why can’t we permit them to do it? Whatever they call it. That’s their problem not mine. Just so nobody else forces their definition of marriage on you –that’s what we have to prevent. …If you have to have regulations, let the state governments do it.”
The audience gave Paul a strong round of applause. But the panel of journalists, led by Fox News moderator Bret Baier, frequently prodded the candidates to take jabs at each other, as it did this time.
“You’re looking incredulous,” said the reporter to Santorum.
“Well, it sounds to me like Rep. Paul would actually say polygamous marriages are OK,” said Santorum. “If the state has the right to do it, they have the right to do it. And it is not beyond reality, Ron, it is exactly what’s being offered in other states right now and it’s being litigated in our courts right now.”
Santorum said that allowing states to decide their own marriage laws was “exactly how gay marriage came about.” He said Iowa was an example, saying seven justices in the Iowa Supreme Court “forced gay marriage on the people of Iowa.” That was a reference to a unanimous decision of the state high court in 2009 that the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection meant same-sex couples should receive the same treatment as straight couples under the state’s marriage laws.
“I was the only one on this panel who came to Iowa last year and made sure those three justices were defeated,” said Santorum, referring to a recall campaign that ousted three of the justices who were up for re-confirmation in 2010.
“I campaigned and worked to make sure those justices were defeated, because we can’t have 50 marriage laws,” said Santorum. “This was the approach the left took on abortion, which is to pick a few states, pick a few courts, and then go to the Supreme Court and say equal protection –you can’t have different state laws, and then you’ll have nine people up at the Supreme Court deciding what marriage is in this country.”
“You have to fight in each state,” said Santorum, “….I will come to the states and fight to make sure this strategy of picking off a state here and there will be successful in transforming marriage.”
When Bachmann was given a chance to comment on the issue, she said she supports the federal marriage amendment to the Constitution “because I do believe we’ll see this issue at the Supreme Court someday.” She said that, as president, she would not nominate “activist judges who legislate from the bench.” She also boasted that, as a state senator in Minnesota, she was the chief author of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman.
A reporter noted that Romney had been critical of the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court justices in 2003 when they issued a decision, similar to Iowa’s, concerning the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. He asked whether Romney thought the New York legislature had the right to make the decision it did last month, in voting to recognize marriage between same-sex partners.
“I’d far prefer having the representatives of people make that decision than justices,” said Romney, “but I believe that the issue of marriage should be decided at the federal level. You might wonder why is that? Why not just let each state make its own decision? And the reason is because people move from state to state, of course, in a society like ours. They have children, as they go to different states, if one state recognizes a marriage and the other does not, what’s the right of the child? What kind of divorce proceeding potential would be in a state that didn’t recognize the marriage in the first place? Marriage is a status, not an activity that goes on within the walls of a state. And as a result, our marriage status relationships should be constant across the country. I believe we should have a federal amendment to the constitution that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman because I believe the ideal place to raise a child is in a home with a mom and a dad.”
Huntsman was taken to task for supporting civil unions when he was governor of Utah. A reporter on the panel noted that 58 percent of likely Republican caucus goers in Iowa recently told a Des Moines Register poll that they consider support for civil unions a “deal killer.”
“Why are you right and most of these other candidates, along with most caucus goers, wrong?” asked the reporter.
Huntsman said he believes in “traditional marriage, first and foremost” but that he also believes in civil unions “because I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality.”
“And I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to reciprocal beneficiary rights,” said Huntsman.
There was a quiet smattering of applause, then moderator Baier noted that the question to Huntsman had been “why are others wrong” for opposing civil unions.
“They’re not wrong,” said Huntsman. “All I’m saying is this ought to be an issue that takes place at the local level of government. That’s where these decisions ought to be made. As for those who are polled, everybody can come at this with their own point of view. I believe in traditional marriage,” said Huntsman, “but I also believe that, subordinate to that, we haven’t done an adequate job when it comes to equality. That’s just my personal belief. Everyone’s entitled to their personal belief, too.”
The auditorium audience was silent.
Most of the two-hour debate focused, as might be expected, on the economy, health care insurance, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the debate was sponsored and broadcast exclusively by Fox News, did not have the sort of multi-channel saturation of other debates and, only Fox broadcast the immediate reactions of political commentators.
Not surprisingly, then, there was no immediate reaction to the discord between Santorum’s vigorous opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry and his complaint, early in the debate, that the current “mullahcracy” of Iran “tramples on the rights of gays.”
There was considerable mainstream media attention given to a question from a reporter on the panel who asked Bachmann whether, given her support for the Bible’s directive for wives to be “submissive” to their husbands, she would be submissive to her husband if she became president. The audience in the Iowa State auditorium delivered a prolonged “boo” at the question. Interestingly, Bachmann, who said she would not appoint “activist” judges, responded that she interprets the word “submissive” to mean “respect” and that she and her husband respect each other.
There was also no discussion of Fox News’ decision to omit openly gay presidential candidate Fred Karger and at least two other announced candidates from the debate. According to Fox News, candidates were omitted if they failed to poll an average of at least one percent on the five most recent national polls.
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