GOP's gay rights crack-up: Why the wingnut base won't let Republicans move on

Republicans want to duck same-sex marriage now that the issue has turned against them. Ted Cruz won't allow it

Published October 7, 2014 8:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jim Cole)
(AP/Jim Cole)

Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage in November 2003, the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney wrote a piece that gamed out how the ruling was likely to impact the 2004 elections. The decision, he wrote, put national Democrats on the defensive, wary as they were of “the kind of cultural issues that have repeatedly put them at a disadvantage over the last 20 years.” Conservatives, meanwhile, were energized. “Anticipating this very decision,” Nagourney wrote, “key Republican leaders had described gay marriage as the abortion issue of 2004, a certain way of igniting their supporters.”

That analysis proved to be largely accurate. The Democrats took up inconsistent positions on same-sex marriage and generally fumbled with the issue. Eleven states had same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in 2004, and all of them passed. Giddy conservatives saw the trend continuing. “It may well be that contemporary liberalism cannot and will not abandon the quest for same-sex marriage,” a National Review writer argued after the election. “But it is sheer self-delusion to pretend that there will be no electoral price to pay.”

Here we are, a decade hence, and the political dynamic has been completely flipped. The Supreme Court, through meaningful inaction, effectively unmade several state bans on same-sex marriage, and Democrats and liberals are embracing and encouraging the movement for equality, buoyed by an American public that is increasingly supportive of marriage rights for gay couples. Republicans, meanwhile, are doing everything in their power to duck the issue out of fear that they’ll alienate their base, the broader American public, or both.

The dramatic realignment of the politics of gay marriage was underscored by this remarkable quote in Time magazine from an adviser to a Republican presidential wannabe:

Advisors to multiple likely 2016 candidates told TIME after the news broke that they are hopeful that swift action by the Supreme Court will provide them cover. “We don’t have to agree with the decision, but as long as we’re not against it we should be okay,” said one aide to a 2016 contender who declined to be named to speak candidly on the sensitive topic. “The base, meanwhile, will focus its anger on the Court, and not on us.”

I suppose you could count this as progress, of sorts. Instead of slipping into Falwell mode and decrying the judicial assault on “traditional values,” Republicans are just keeping their mouths shut and hoping the issue will just go away or angry conservatives will blame someone else. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work that way.

The Republicans spent decades nurturing the Christian right and other anti-gay constituencies, extracting votes and money from them with promises to halt the country’s moral decline. “God, Guns, and Gays” was the culture war mantra for the Republicans and, in the case of Jim Inhofe’s 1994 Senate run in Oklahoma, an actual campaign slogan. And now, after years and years of vocal and strident opposition to equal rights for gays, the GOP plan is to just sit this one out now that the cultural tide has turned against them? The same-sex marriage opponents the party empowered aren’t likely to give up so easily. They may not have the clout they once had nationally, but they’re still a potent force within the party.

The fight over immigration reform is instructive here. Republicans spent years and years battling “amnesty” and calling for border lockdowns to keep the more nativist elements of their base happy. The 2012 election and Mitt “Self-Deportation” Romney’s dismal showing among Latinos shocked the party and, for a brief time, there was significant momentum within the GOP for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. But then the conservative base began reasserting itself on the “amnesty” issue and Republicans who’d been preaching the need for reform slipped back into their old ways to ward off the threat of primary challenges.

Immigration reform died because anti-immigrant legislators like Iowa Rep. Steve King were able to mobilize conservative activists against it. Republicans recognize the political peril of continuing to alienate Latino voters, but they answer first to the base.

A similar dynamic will make it impossible for Republicans heading into 2016 to dodge gay marriage or the conservative opposition to it. While most GOP presidential aspirants were quiet on the Supreme Court non-decision, Ted Cruz was anything but. He released a scathing statement attacking the “tragic and indefensible” decision and slamming the court for “abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution.” He plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban the government or the courts from overturning state-passed marriage laws.

As he does with every other issue area, Cruz is dragging the same-sex marriage debate within the GOP as far to the right as he possibly can. The activist Christian right already considers Cruz to be one of the most influential people in the party, and (assuming he runs in 2016) the other Republican candidates will have to decide where they’ll stand. “If you're a candidate for president who refuses to oppose homosexual marriage, I don't see how you get elected,” an Iowa GOP official told TPM. “You're going to get clobbered.”

By Simon Maloy

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