Columns » John Brummett

Depending on what gay means

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Not even Bill Clinton ever sliced and diced an issue more masterfully than Mike Beebe on gay foster care.

That includes the time Clinton vetoed a highway tax, quietly encouraged legislators to override him, then sought highway contractors’ support because he had orchestrated his own rebuff.

Beebe is in that league — and part of a long Arkansas Democratic tradition — on whether gays may be foster parents.

He says no, but not necessarily because of disapproval of gayness. He says, though, that he can’t let the state say no if banning gay foster care might be unconstitutional, which he says it could well be.

Beebe says a gay household affiliation might stigmatize a small youth in much the way he felt stigmatized as a young boy with a single mom with a last name different from his. But he says Senate Bill 959 is rife with constitutional vulnerability and that he can’t see offhand how to fix it.

He covers himself adequately with rural and culturally conservative swing voters, if not the evangelical hard right, which would never support him anyway. He covers himself on acting constitutionally, which carries the effect of covering himself with the cultural left.

He won’t get the cultural left’s enthusiasm. That would be reserved actually for defending gay rights. But doing that would risk alienating the vital swing voters, and, anyway, he doesn’t need the cultural left’s enthusiasm. He only needs not to alienate it fully, which he would do if he proved no more useful to the cultural left’s purposes than a Republican.

It’s conceivable that his positions are, while expedient, genuine.

It might actually be true that Beebe genuinely fears a stigma for a young child sent to a gay foster home. As for the constitutional concern, that’s undeniably valid.

This ban would discriminate against gays. Even if you could get away with that, you can’t clearly define the people against whom you’re trying to discriminate. Sexual orientation is not evident. Thus you have the vagueness issue.

The political beauty is that Beebe probably never has to show his hand. He can rely on the constitutional dubiousness to oppose the bill. Then, failing enactment, he is expressly forbidden from advancing an administrative regulation on the subject. The Arkansas Supreme Court said explicitly last year that the state can’t promulgate a regulation against gay foster care when the Legislature has considered and failed to enact one by law.

You could challenge Beebe to sign the bill anyway if he indeed opposes gay foster parenting. You could invite him to leave the constitutionality to the courts. But he’d surely say that would be irresponsible, like Frank White signing the creation science bill.

Beebe has this sonofagun very nearly checkmated.

There might be one move left. What if the Legislature sent the governor a broad, vague bill, and he vetoed it because of its broadness and vagueness? But what if he then directed his Human Services Department to write a much narrower and clearer regulation? How about simply defining foster parents as legally married couples?

You’d lose the services of a lot of heterosexuals that way. And yes, foster children aren’t exactly awash in opportunities.

I fear I’m getting into gymnastics worthy of a Democratic politician in Arkansas.

Republicans cry “aha, told you so” whenever I write about these Arkansas Democratic gymnastics. But nobody’s fooling anybody. East Arkansas farmers don’t want to vote for a Republican from across the state who knows nothing of their livelihood. And they won’t if the Democratic alternative will at least make an effort to relate to them, in part by transcending his party’s liberal reputation. Family values are fine, but bread and butter matter, too.

“Just Plain Bill” Fulbright wasn’t, really. Dale Bumpers likes to tell audiences now that the reason they thought he was more liberal than they is that he was, really.

Clinton, David and Mark Pryor — they performed close to perfect 10s on the balance beam, and were role models for the budding gold medalist now in the Governor’s Mansion.

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