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Everyone who moderates a debate this year could learn from the journalists who guided the May 1 Iowa Republican gubernatorial candidates' debate: Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Paul Yeager of Iowa Public Television, and Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio. Too many journalists ask long-winded questions that are easy to evade, or ask about hot topics of no lasting importance, or ask about policies outside the scope of the office the candidates are seeking.

In contrast, almost every question the panelists asked during Saturday's debate was direct and addressed an issue the next governor of Iowa will face.

Mind you, asking an unambiguous question doesn't guarantee that you'll get a straight answer from a politician. Look what happened when Dorman asked the Republicans, "Can you identify one tangible way Iowa has been harmed during a full year of legal same-sex marriage?"

The segment of the debate on same-sex marriage rights began shortly after the 61:30 mark of this video. The full transcript is here. Bob Vander Plaats was the first to tackle Dorman's question:

Vander Plaats: I’ve taken a very bold issue on this, Todd, and I happen to believe that marriage is a foundation to society.  I believe it was designed for procreation and the development of a civilized society and that is a personal conviction of mine, it’s not a political position of mine.  However, I think it goes beyond that because what the Supreme Court did on April 3, 2009, quite frankly, they can’t do.  They legislated from the bench when they made law.  They executed from the bench when they ordered all 99 counties to follow suit.  They can’t execute anything.

Vander Plaats: But worse than that they attempted to amend your Constitution by saying they’re going to hold up Iowa’s Constitution to an evolving standard with every generation.  They don’t get to evolve our Constitution.  Only we the people get to amend and evolve the Constitution.  That’s why I’ve been the only candidate to say, you know what, we need to hold the Supreme Court in check and I plan on doing that on day one to issue the executive order, to place a stay on that April 3 opinion halting same-sex marriages until the legislature either deals with it or until they pass it off to the people of Iowa for a vote.

Vander Plaats: This is a freedom issue because if they’ll do this with marriage, they will do this with private property, they’ll do it with free speech, they’ll do it with freedom of religion, free enterprise, the 10th amendment, the 2nd amendment, any freedom we hold dear.  And that’s why when the governor upholds the oath to the Constitution, part of that includes separation of powers.  That’s why I will insert myself on day one.

Vander Plaats loves to refer to his "bold" leadership and vision, and I suppose it is "bold" to be so far out of the mainstream that Representative Steve King finds your legal arguments flawed. But Vander Plaats is not on solid ground here. It's fine for him to believe marriage is for procreation, but the state recognizes thousands of heterosexual marriages joining couples with no intention or ability to procreate. We can all think of a few heterosexual marriages that go against our values or personal beliefs, but we don't expect the state not to recognize those marriages.

Vander Plaats argues that the Iowa Supreme Court harmed Iowa by going beyond its authority. But American high courts have the power to strike down laws they find unconstitutional. Precedent for that authority goes back more than 200 years in our country's history. Then Vander Plaats claims the judges usurped executive authority by ordering all 99 counties to abide by the Varnum v Brien ruling. Show me one legal scholar who thinks certain counties and municipalities should continue to enforce a law deemed unconstitutional.

As for the "evolving" constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court has a long history of recognizing civil rights, often way before broader public opinion would have supported its actions. Vander Plaats is the one trying to "evolve" the constitution by giving the governor the power to overrule a Supreme Court ruling.

A few minutes later in the debate, Vander Plaats referred to "many constitutional lawyers and historians" who support his executive order strategy, but the list is quite short. David Barton of WallBuilders, a Vander Plaats endorser from Texas, is best known for advocating "Biblical positions" in public policy. In the past Vander Plaats has also mentioned Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, who are not attorneys, and Herb Titus, who was the Constitution Party's vice presidential candidate in 1996.  

Vander Plaats spins a doomsday scenario of a runaway court taking away our property rights, free speech and so on, but the Iowa Supreme Court didn't take away anybody's rights with the Varnum v Brien decision. On the contrary, the court struck down a law that excluded a historically disfavored group of people from the benefits of civil marriage.

State Representative Rod Roberts was the next candidate to answer Dorman's question:

Roberts: I think the harm that has been done is what I have discovered is the response of Iowans across the state who are unhappy that they have not been allowed the opportunity to weigh in on this very important issue.  When the branches of government have such a sharp disagreement over a subject as important as the definition of marriage the Constitution says go directly to the people and give them an opportunity to address that issue and consider amending their state Constitution by putting that statute into the supreme law.  What I have heard from Iowans all across the state is let us vote.  I believe that’s the right thing to do, it’s the respectful thing to do.  So, the harm has been when it comes to the people of Iowa and their attitude toward elected officials thwarting their will that simply asks let us vote on the question.

Roberts: I don’t believe that the governor can hold the Supreme Court in check.  The people of Iowa hold the justices of our Supreme Court to accountability.  In November there will be a retention election on the general election ballot and three of our current justice will be up for retention.  The people of Iowa will make a decision about these justices.  We are all, whether you’re the governor, a legislator or a justice of the Supreme Court, accountable to the people.  They hold all of us in check.

Roberts is correct to point out, as he did during the first gubernatorial debate, that the governor doesn't have the power to "hold the Supreme Court in check" via executive order. But he's wrong to claim the Constitution "says go directly to the people" when the judicial branch overrules the legislative branch on something important. The Iowa Constitution outlines an amendment procedure but doesn't instruct public officials to start that procedure whenever branches of government disagree.

As for the "tangible" harm Dorman asked about, Roberts has nothing to say except that lots of Iowans are angry (probably not as many as he thinks, but that's a topic for another post). Roberts presents the constitutional amendment as a "respectful" way to deal with those who demand the opportunity to vote on the definition of marriage. In what has become the politically correct Republican messaging on this issue, Roberts depicts a public vote on marriage as a neutral action.

In reality, state legislators would not be passing a neutral resolution to "let the people vote" on marriage. Two separately elected legislatures would have to pass an amendment restricting marriage rights to one-man, one-woman couples. That's the same form of discrimination the Iowa Supreme Court found unconstitutional because it serves no compelling state interest. Apparently Roberts thinks some people being angry is enough to give the majority power to take rights away from a minority group, but that's far from "respectful." The respectful way to handle angry people would be to reassure them that they don't have to approve of same-sex marriages, and their churches don't have to recognize those unions.

Roberts is correct that Iowans can vote against retaining the Supreme Court justices on the ballot this November, as he has previously advocated. Still, he failed to answer Dorman's simple question about how Iowa has been harmed by a few thousand gays and lesbians getting married over the past year.

Next up: former Governor Terry Branstad, who generally avoids bringing up gay marriage on the campaign trail:

Branstad: The Supreme Court is not above the law but neither is the governor.  And what Bob is advocating clearly won’t hold up.  When Vilsack tried to do something like that by executive order Congressman Steve King when he was a state senator sued and was successful and it was struck down by the court.  You will not be successful in that effort.  Instead, I agree with Representative Roberts, the final say should be with the people and that’s what the people are so angry about, that an unelected Supreme Court went against the will of the people in a law that I signed, Defense of Marriage Act, that says marriage is between one man and one woman.  The people should have a right to vote on that.

Branstad: The only thing that is preventing that is the democratic leaders in the house and the senate are not letting that resolution come up for a vote.  We need to replace them.  That is arrogant and irresponsible.  We need to replace them with responsible republicans that will let the people vote on this.  I believe Iowans will do what 31 other states have done and that is through a Constitutional amendment voted the people restore one man, one woman marriage and that’s in this state – every state where it’s come up for a vote from Maine to California it’s been approved.  That’s what we need to do in Iowa.

Like Roberts, Branstad points out the obvious: Vander Plaats' executive order plan is a non-starter. Then he uses the same messaging about "letting the people vote," as if Americans routinely make minority rights contingent on a majority vote. I had to laugh hearing Branstad complain about "unelected" judges going against the will of the people. A year ago, when he wasn't planning to run for governor again, Branstad was much more restrained in commenting on the Varnum v Brien ruling (which one of his own appointees wrote).

Branstad has previously said same-sex couples shouldn't be discriminated against. He has no problem with gays or lesbians living together and in some cases adopting children. Yet somehow it's urgent to "let the people vote" on revoking legal recognition of those couples' committed relationships.

At the end of the day, none of the Republicans running for governor gave a convincing answer to Dorman's question. They pandered to the angry conservative base, and all answered yes to the next question about whether overturning same-sex marriage rights would be a "top-three priority" for them if elected.

Although Republicans expect this to be a winning issue for them in November, I believe Iowans will respond favorably to Governor Chet Culver's message: discrimination has no place in our state constitution, "the Supreme Court has spoken loudly and clearly and I think it’s time to move on." Iowans may be divided over marriage equality, but a clear majority does not consider this issue one of the top priorities for our elected officials.

Share any thoughts about the politics of marriage equality or the Iowa governor's race in this thread.

UPDATE: Belated thanks to jlms qkw for the diary rescue.

Originally posted to desmoinesdem on Mon May 03, 2010 at 10:55 AM PDT.

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