Republicans' 2004 problem: Why they still can't get right on gay marriage

Mike Pence's stumbling on gay rights shows Republicans can't break free from the stale Bush playbook

By Simon Maloy
Published April 1, 2015 3:10PM (EDT)
  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Shortly after George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, Karl Rove talked to the New York Times and had nothing but good things to say about how same-sex marriage was playing out as a political issue. Bush’s victory over John Kerry was powered by social conservatives who also helped 11 states pass constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and Rove wanted everyone to know that this issue was a great one for Republicans. “People do not like the idea or the concept of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman being uprooted and overturned by a few activist judges or a couple of activist local officials,” he said. “I think people would be well advised to pay attention to what the American people are saying.”

Eleven years later, many of those state-level same-sex marriage bans have been overturned by “activist judges,” while other states have affirmatively voted to acknowledge same-sex marriage rights. The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, and the court will rule this year on the power of states to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. Public opinion on gay marriage has flipped completely since Rove counseled politicians to heed the will of the people. In March 2004, Americans opposed same-sex marriage 62-30. Today, they support it 59-33. That such a shift could happen over such a relatively small amount of time is incredible.

Given this wild swing in public opinion, it’s also incredible that Gov. Mike Pence was caught so flat-footed by the howling outrage he brought down on the state of Indiana by signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. After stumbling through a few days of bad interviews and horrible PR, Pence asked the Indiana legislature to “fix” the law so that it can’t do what it was specifically written to do: protect discrimination against gay people under the guise of religious freedom. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash?” he asked himself at yesterday’s press conference. “Heavens, no.”

Well, you should have been. The political and cultural realignment surrounding gay rights issues over the last decade has made it harder for conservatives to use the machinery of government to deny gay people their rights. They’re not just facing down activist groups and easily caricatured liberals anymore – corporate America, professional sports, and large segments of the media are less willing to stay silent in the face of anti-gay discrimination. Republicans and conservatives, however, are still stuck using the Bush playbook and its assumption that hostility to same-sex marriage remains a political winner.

Unshakeable devotion to this idea led to one of my very favorite failed political predictions. In May 2012, after Joe Biden announced his support for same-sex marriage, Erick Erickson predicted that this issue would cost Obama his reelection. “May 6, 2012: The Day Obama Lost,” Erickson proclaimed. “All thanks to Joe Biden, Barack Obama, in a very close election, decided to come out on the side that loses every time,” he wrote. Obama, of course, won by a comfortable margin, and he did so with considerable assistance from gay voters. Eight years earlier, Erickson may have been on to something. In 2012 it was just wishful thinking.

For Republican politicians, wishful thinking is pretty much their only option. The country may be changing its attitude towards gay rights, but conservative voters still expect their candidates to fight against the collapse of “traditional moral values” or the “sanctity of marriage.” Republican presidential hopefuls stood in solidarity with Pence and the Indiana law as condemnations came pouring down from pretty much every corner of American life. “I think Governor Pence has done the right thing,” Jeb Bush said. “I want to commend Governor Mike Pence for his support of religious freedom, especially in the face of fierce opposition,” Ted Cruz’s statement began. And then Pence went and made them all look silly by backing down and admitting that there were problems with the law as it was written. The only candidate who stayed silent was Rand Paul, who is “out of pocket all week with his family” and issued no statement on the Indiana law. But even he ended up being dragged into the fight after Buzzfeed News dug up a clip from a 2013 interview in which he says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of “gay rights.”

As for Pence and his rumored 2016 ambitions, conservatives are calling him a sellout and a coward for caving to the liberals and the media. Combine that with his past apostasy on expanded Medicaid funding, and Pence will have a tough row to hoe convincing the right that he can be trusted. (On the plus side, he’ll have gobs of the Koch brothers’ money to play with.)

For now all the Republican 2016 candidates are fine staking out hardline conservative positions on gay rights because that’s what their primary voters want. The real fun will start when we get closer to the general election and the likely candidate is forced to make a decision: does he back away from issues like Indiana’s “religious freedom” law and moderate his language so as to not alienate younger voters, or does he give the Bush strategy one more shot?

Simon Maloy

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