The indispensable Hugh Hewitt has set as this weekend's symposium topic the following:
How deep a hole have John Kerry, Mary Beth Cahill and the Edwards dug for themselves? How lasting the damage?
Read literally, this title calls for a "horse race" analysis -- will it hurt Kerry-Edwards? Good question, but first let's think about the ethics and taste of the allusion.
Hugh suggests that the candidate's children are always off limits. In general, he's right. This principle is strongest when the child is young and when the child doesn't have a public political role in association with the candidate parent. Ronald Reagan the politician should not have been judged by Ron Reagan the ballet dancer or Patty Reagan the bohemian. The first George Bush should not have been judged by the S&L affairs of his son Neal, nor should Jeb Bush or George McGovern be held politically responsible for the substance abuse problems of their adult children, who did not choose to be public figures.
It's a little different when the candidate and the child become associated with public politics, and the child acts as a public advocate for the parent. At that point, the public life of the child may become relevant.
Perhaps an example will help. Years ago, I ran against and defeated Ruth Goldway, a radical, publicity-seeking Mayor of Santa Monica. Ruth's husband, Derek Shearer, was her political sidekick and campaign manager, and was appointed to the Planning Commission. When in running against Ruth, I attacked Derek, and was accused of "sexism" for tagging the wife for her husband's positions. I rejected the charge, because they were in fact a public political team who acted in concert. Were Derek a private citizen, he would not be fair game in a campaign against his wife.
This case is in-between. Mary Cheney is to a degree a public political person, and one could imagine a scenario when mentioning her would be appropriate--if, for example, Cheney had taken the position (which he hasn't) that homosexuals should be shunned, but didn't distance himself from his daughter.
What happened here, however, was nothing of the kind. Edwards and Kerry figured they wouldn't antagonize their homosexual or pro-gay-agenda supporters by mentioning the fact, but might cause some religious conservatives to question voting for Bush-Cheney if they learned for the first time that Cheney had a lesbian daughter. The mention of Mary Cheney was non-responsive to the question (stupid though it was) of whether homosexuality was a "choice" or innate. No one knows her history, or whether she follows her way of life because of her deep inward nature, or for other reasons. Nor is one's approval, indifference, or condemnation of homosexuality necessarily relevant to one's views on gay marriage or the proposed constitutional amendment. Kerry-Edwards's mention of Mary was thus nonresponsive to the question, gratuitous, and probably calculated "wedge" politics.
Now to answer Hugh's question in literal terms. The effect is likely to be different in different quarters. Gay movement folks will still vote for Kerry-Edwards, first because they don't think mentioning the sexual orientation of someone who is "out" should be a big deal, and second, because they know Kerry will tacitly, if not openly, acquiesce in their agenda, and Bush won't.
Likewise, few "social issue" conservatives will change their mind. Christians (even those who condemn homosexual conduct as un-Biblical) understand the "love the sinner, hate the sin" concept as intelligently discussed at length here, and know we are all sinners. And they know the Democrats are the party of secularism and the ACLU, and the GOP is not.
Where this is likely to play is among women, and some fathers, who are fiercely protective of their own children, and will viscerally react to the remark, and Kerry's refusal to say "I made a boo-boo in the heat of the debate, and I'm sorry." There's a segment of the population that doesn't love Bush, and is looking for reasons to vote for Kerry-Edwards, but questions their merits and character. This smacks of demagogy and political calculation, and to a parent, will resonate. Gratuitiously bringing up Mary and pretending it's praise of the Cheney family doesn't pass the smell test. It will cause some of the waverers and weak Kerry folks to waver and hesitate to vote for them. If a few of these folks decide not to vote or to vote Bush, it could be significant in swing states.