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The McGreevey Matter

Now that we are all finished picking our jaws up off the floor after Governor Jim McGreevey’s one-of-a-kind press conference in New Jersey, it is worth taking stock of what this extraordinary development might mean for the 2004 race for president–in and out of the Garden State.

McGreevey’s resignation speech was repeatedly called “courageous” on TV, and we are still chuckling over a cable news anchor’s instant analysis that the people of New Jersey would be so sympathetic that they would rise up and demand that he withdraw his resignation and serve out his term as a proud gay man. (Yep, she really said approximately that, in a “question” to the correspondent following the developments in Trenton!) A prominent print journalist also told us that in his big-city newsroom, gay and lesbian reporters stood and applauded as McGreevey joined The Cause, or appeared to. This is Deep Blue America’s reaction to McGreevey’s announcement, perhaps, but it is wildly unrepresentative of Red America, or even swing-state Purple America.

Let’s get one thing “straight” from the beginning. This is not about gay rights. Some of our most conservative readers certainly will not agree, but we at the Crystal Ball believe that gay and lesbian Americans deserve all of the same rights and responsibilities of citizenship as the heterosexual majority, including the privilege of serving in high public office.

But Jim McGreevey is another matter entirely. Instead of courageous, we would choose another “c” word to describe his speech: clever. The governor wrapped himself in the rainbow flag of gay rights to cover up some most unappealing warts. First, his administration has been surrounded by the stench of corruption almost from the beginning–and there is certainly more to come. Second, the people of New Jersey seemed to smell a rat virtually from the beginning of his term; McGreevey has been consistently unpopular, so low in the polls that few would have bet that he would even have been nominated by the Democrats for a second term.

Third and most important, McGreevey has led a governorship of personal sleaze. He has intentionally used two older women–his wives–and two younger women (his daughters) as props to cover up his double life. (Thanks to our correspondent Steve Wells, we were reminded of the ironic New Jersey tourism ads from the past two summers, with McGreevey holding his current wife and their daughter at the Jersey shore, while exclaiming, “COME OUT–and see what’s new in New Jersey.” Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up.) As the truth unfolds, it will be abundantly clear that McGreevey’s homosexuality was no recent revelation to him, but rather has been his norm in a long political career that could fairly be described as one long deception of the public for his own personal gain. Some details, if revealed, are sure to shock even the cynical among us.

McGreevey’s corruption, deception, and sleaze are well illustrated in his outrageous decision to appoint his male lover, an Israeli citizen, to a critical, intelligence-sensitive, and extremely well-paid post in homeland security. The taxpayers funded his extramarital relationship–not unlike the infamous 1970s case of Congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio, who put his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, on his payroll as a secretary despite the fact that, as she later revealed, she could not type. (A powerful committee chairman, Hays was forced out of his chairmanship and eventually Congress as a result.)

All this should be obvious to any clear-thinking person. What may not be obvious is the McGreevey scandal’s effect on the presidential contest.

There are two major consequences, one in-state for New Jersey and the other national in its reach:

The New Jersey Situation

Laughably, McGreevey declared that his resignation would be delayed until Nov. 15 in order to ensure a smooth transition. One doubts that the transfer of power in a single state–95 days under McGreevey’s schedule–must take longer than the national transfer of power from one president to another (80 days should Kerry win the White House). Instead, McGreevey and his Democratic associates were trying to prevent a special election for Governor on the same day as the presidential election, which would have occurred had McGreevey stepped down by early September. By sticking around, the disgraced governor can pass along the statehouse to a Democratic crony, the state senate president, and a whole year will pass before the regularly scheduled election–allowing an easily distracted public plenty of time to forget this massive embarrassment. Furthermore, the Democrats will be able to separate the presidential contest–decided on Nov. 2–from any discussion of New Jersey state corruption, put off until the 2005 election for governor and legislature.

But the Republicans are now demanding McGreevey’s resignation be tendered by early September, which would put the governorship and the presidency on the Jersey ballot simultaneously. It is unlikely they will succeed, since they have no real leverage. The legislature is in Democratic hands, so no impeachment will be possible. Still, the GOP goal is to remind voters on a daily basis of McGreevey’s failed governorship, in an attempt to generate a backlash that might help Bush. With Kerry ahead in the Garden State by at least 10 percentage points, the only chance for Republicans to carry the state for Bush is to make Kerry a surrogate for McGreevey, using both their shared party label and association with gay rights.

The Crystal Ball’s Assessment: Good try by the GOP, but it won’t work. New Jersey is an eastern Illinois, once very competitive in presidential elections and otherwise, but now so deeply anti-Republican that voters will tolerate incredible shenanigans by the Democrats. Remember the Democratic party’s late substitution of ex-Senator Frank Lautenberg for the losing incumbent Senator Bob Torricelli in 2002? It worked: The voters swallowed that arrogant gambit whole, and the Democrats kept the Senate seat in a near-landslide.

The National Situation after McGreevey

The Democrats may have New Jersey locked up, except in the very unlikely case of a Bush landslide, but the Republicans can squeeze some advantage out of the messy McGreevey matter in some of the key battleground states. Here’s how. As of now, it appears that there will be referenda in ten states on the subject of gay marriage, held simultaneously with the November presidential election: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. You’ll notice that this includes the swing states of Arkansas, Ohio, and Oregon. Missouri has already had its referendum on primary day on August 3, and the results were stunningly one-sided: 71 percent in favor of keeping marriage between a man and a woman, only 29 percent in favor of permitting same-gender marriage.

We’ll bet the referenda pass everywhere, even in liberal states, and by large margins in most places. This helps George W. Bush. For one thing, it stimulates gigantic turnouts by conservative Christians, who overwhelmingly favor Bush’s reelection–and whose absence from the polls in large numbers may have cost Bush the popular vote in 2000. (Gays will also have record voter turnouts, but the numbers aren’t there in most states to match the increased conservative participation.) Second, this hot-button social issue has the potential to equal the emotion being generated by Iraq. Just as Kerry benefits from the anti-Iraq fervor, so too will Bush profit from the gay marriage issue.

Of course, it’s true that Kerry also is opposed togay marriage, but most voters know that gay and lesbian groups are fundamental constituencies of the Democratic party, that Kerry is from Massachusetts where the current gay marriage controversy began, and that Kerry’s nineteen year Senate voting record is strongly pro-gay rights. Gay marriage is but the symbolic cover issue that wraps around the gay rights issue cluster; rightly or wrongly, most voters think that the march towards gay equality is progressing too rapidly and comprehensively, pushed by unelected judges and unbridled judicial power.

For a majority of voters, certainly, gay rights is not the alpha and omega of politics in 2004. As Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, commented in the New York Times on August 14, 2004, “[M]ost people don’t wake up in the morning thinking about gay and lesbian marriage or any gay issue. They wake up in the morning thinking about jobs and health care and the war in Iraq.” Still, for a sizeable segment of the voting population, gay rights and gay marriage rank highly on the list of salient issues. Gay marriage in particular is proving to be a prime motivator of the anti-Kerry, pro-Bush vote. This surprises most of the press and campaign corps, concentrated as they are in the liberal enclaves of Washington and New York. But it is a fact, and an increasingly vital aspect of this election year.

The Crystal Ball’s Assessment: Unintentionally, Jim McGreevey’s scandal has helped to raise the prominence of gay rights on the Campaign 2004 agenda across the nation. McGreevey has instantaneously become a well recognized albatross for the Democratic Party and John Kerry, and thus a plus for George W. Bush–playing into the ballot initiatives on gay marriage in crucial swing states. Oddly, then, McGreevey’s coming-out is proving to be a come-down for John Kerry.

Our overall conclusion is that Bush has received an unexpected break from the unlikeliest of places. At the same time, we continue to see Iraq, the war on terror, and the economy as issues of greater importance for most voters as they decide their presidential ballot. Thus, the New Jersey bombshell is no doubt a welcome development for Bush’s campaign managers, but the president needs some good luck where it counts more, economically and internationally, if he is to win a second term.