Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of same-sex marriage in New Jersey is a small setback for marriage equality, which now spans seven states plus the District of Columbia. It is a bigger setback for the Republican Party and for Christie himself, one of the party’s rising stars.
With a stroke of his pen, Christie could have allowed gay New Jerseyans to get married in their home state without having to potentially wait through years of additional political and legal wrangling. But the governor chose instead to squarely block the chapel door with his imposing personage.
Christie has desperately tried to avoid the inevitable comparison with Southern governors who fought desegregation efforts a half-century ago. It won’t work. A decade or two from now, when gay marriage is a fact and not a controversy, Christie will be remembered as one of the villains in this drama, the way men like Alabama’s George Wallace, Mississippi’s Ross Barnett and Arkansas’ Orval Faubus have become symbols of the hate-imbued traditions they defended. While other governors, including Mitt Romney, have resisted court-imposed measures (Romney blocked out-of-state couples from being wed in Massachusetts when that state became the first to permit gay marriage), Christie is just the second to veto a marriage act that was duly passed by his own state’s Legislature. Former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed same-sex marriage in Vermont in 2009. His veto was overridden.
The analogies with those long-ago Southern governors are inevitable because they are apt. Christie, an able attorney as well as a competent politician, knows that same-sex marriage is going to happen in New Jersey; he just does not want his supporters to see him allowing it to happen. Those earlier governors similarly knew that the White House was going to enforce the desegregation orders of the federal courts, no matter what they did. But Wallace, as one example, had called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address, and he made a show of standing in a doorway at the University of Alabama to bar two African-American students from entering.
The Southern governors did not acknowledge their racism. Like today’s opponents of same-sex marriage, they claimed to uphold principles - and in the states where courts have imposed marriage equality, the principles they invoke are much the same. Wallace, for example, declared in that schoolhouse doorway, “Only the Congress makes the law of the United States. To this date no statutory authority can be cited to the people of this country which authorizes the central government to ignore the sovereignty of this state in an attempt to subordinate the rights of Alabama and millions of Americans. There has been no legislative action by Congress justifying this intrusion.” (Wallace spoke in June 1963; Congress passed the Civil Rights Act the following year.)
Christie, of course, can’t argue that the people’s elected representatives ought to have their say. Instead, he has adopted the bizarre position that - on this issue alone - legislative action is not good enough. He called for a statewide referendum on gay marriage and for further efforts to make the state’s almost-but-not-quite-marriage alternative of civil unions the functional equivalent of marriage.
In other words, everyone in New Jersey should vote on the civil liberties of their gay neighbors, who should be content in the meantime with civil unions instead of marriage.
If he wants to prevent gay marriage in New Jersey, Christie ought to just veto it and campaign against a legislative override. That’s what the social conservative wing of the Republican Party would want him to do.
But social conservatives count much more heavily outside New Jersey than in it. Christie does not want to alienate the social conservatives completely, but he also does not want to come across as a true believer (such as Rick Santorum) to the political independents, disaffected Democrats and moderate Republicans whose support he needs in order to get re-elected in New Jersey. So he is trying to thread a needle.
Experience teaches that it won’t work. Romney adopted all the requisite socially conservative positions once he won the governorship in Massachusetts, but he has not won the support or trust of the social conservatives, who accurately sense that their top priorities are not Romney’s top priorities. Christie would most likely meet the same fate. His call for a referendum on gay marriage is not going to help him with the crowd that thinks such unions violate God’s law and that this should suffice to determine the issue’s place in civil law, too.
Yet as he kowtows to the social conservatives who won’t appreciate it, Christie strengthens their hand by driving moderates away from him personally and from his party. People who support Republican views on business, on taxes and on the scope of government, but who are socially tolerant, rightly recoil at the thought of supporting candidates like Romney or Christie, even when they agree on big policy issues. Moderate supporters must comfort themselves with the thought that candidates’ views on social issues do not matter much in the long run. Even Wallace eventually renounced his racism. It is hard to take comfort in such thoughts, however, when the offense against civic tolerance is as fresh as Christie’s veto.
New Jersey is a Democrat-leaning state. To change that, people like Christie need to attract more people to the Republican banner. You don’t do that in New Jersey by trying to appease voters in some hypothetical future South Carolina GOP primary. It would have been a much more powerful statement if Christie had accepted the Legislature’s decision, despite his personal reservations, and signed the gay marriage bill. As governor of all the people of New Jersey, he then ought to have offered to officiate at as many same-sex weddings as his schedule would permit.
Weddings, after all, are meant to be celebrated, and a good governor should help his fellow citizens celebrate them. History will note that only a different, and much meaner, sort of governor would opt to block the chapel door.