Voices

Strategic balance

Overreaching after a victory can lead to embarrassing defeats

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

Odd as it may seem, the ultra-liberal Supreme Court of Massachusetts deserves a whole lot of credit for electing George W. Bush to a second term in the U.S. presidency.

For if it all came down to Ohio-and from a human standpoint, it did-and if the issue in Ohio was the "ground game" and which side could get out the largest number of new voters, then give huge credit to Phil Burress of Cincinnati for victory in that tactical battle.

Mr. Burress led Ohio's "Campaign to Protect Marriage," a broad coalition to put an initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot that, if it passed, would amend Ohio's constitution not just to ban homosexual marriage but also to prohibit "domestic partnership benefits" for public employees. The measure passed overwhelmingly.

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And if you then wonder what motivated Phil Burress to work so extra fervently for the last year to achieve that goal, look no further than last year's ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court requiring that homosexual marriage be recognized in that state. That ruling, it turned out, was an insult to Phil Burress. He told me last year how angry it made him on two counts: first, that a court could so easily ignore what he sensed was the will of the people even in a liberal state like Massachusetts; and second, that a court (even a state's highest court) could exercise that much raw power, especially since the decision was made with a one-vote majority.

Yet while that one-vote majority still stands in the great state of Massachusetts, the ripple effect of that decision through the rest of the nation is almost certainly the direct opposite of what Bay State homosexuals hoped for when they first began to press their case. Instead of the wildfire that last spring and summer seemed to be spreading in favor of homosexual marriage (remember the marrying mayor of San Francisco and the news stories from Oregon?), what actually has happened just one election cycle later is the remarkable passage of not just one but 11 state-wide bans on such marriage-including a resounding measure to that effect in Oregon itself!

All of which should serve as a reminder about the follies of triumphalism. The victory that gives you so much to cheer about today too easily becomes the very thing that spurs your opponents on to new ardor in their next round.

Like the homosexuals in Massachusetts, we conservatives haven't always done well with victory. Time and again, we've squandered our short-term victories (remember Congress in the mid-'90s?) only to lose face embarrassingly soon with the American people.

Of all President Bush's impossible assignments for his second term, none may be harder than knowing, on the one hand, when he should seek to unite the American people, but on the other, when he should not be afraid to appear to be a divider. To be faithful to his calling, he must do both; such is the ultimate challenge of leadership. Right near the core of that process is the need to walk a perilous tight-wire: Fall off one way, and you've failed to secure the advantage you and your supporters have won. Fall off the other way, and you'll be seen to have been overly greedy.

To his angry opponents, Mr. Bush was vastly overreaching when he announced a couple of days after his election that "I have earned some political capital, and now I intend to spend it." But it was in fact a wonderfully measured statement. "I have a hefty bank account," he was saying-without telling anyone just how much capital he had stashed away. "I can afford to make some deals," he was announcing-without tipping anyone off at this stage exactly what he would be bidding for.

It was exactly the kind of response you should hope for from someone who is being careful neither to underreach nor to overreach.

So have you prayed this week for Mr. Bush's sense of balance? Have you also prayed this week for Mr. Bush's boldness in spending wisely and strategically the capital he has won? And have you prayed he'll remember his debt to Phil Burress and his troops in Ohio?

Balance for balance's sake is not the goal. The presidency is not an exercise in carving out a little piece for everybody. But balance as a strategic maneuver, so that you still have your footing for the next assault, is a legitimate issue to keep in mind. If you need a reminder on that subject, ask the homosexual lobby in Massachusetts.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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