They'll never stop fighting the culture wars: Why the GOP won't seize its "opportunity" to give up extremism

SCOTUS decisions on marriage equality and Obamacare could let 2016 contenders turn the page. But they don’t want to

Published June 29, 2015 3:51PM (EDT)

Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush                              (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)
Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)

Writing for the New York Times on Sunday, Jonathan Martin thought he found some good news for the GOP in the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. Here’s how the headline put it: “As Left Wins Culture Battles, GOP Gains Opportunity to Pivot for 2016.”

That’s an “opportunity,” indeed.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum laid it out this way: “Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era. The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues. And Republicans can say, ‘Whether you’re gay, black or a recent migrant to our country, we are going to welcome you as a fully cherished member of our coalition.’ ”

Or not.

Former Minnesota Tim Pawlenty tried another angle: Decisions about Obamacare, marriage equality and the Confederate flag get divisive issues off the table for the GOP.  “Whether the presidential candidates agree or disagree with the results of all this, it allows them to say these issues have been settled and move on to things that offer more of a political home-field advantage,” the optimistic Pawlenty suggested. He neglected to say what those issues are. But there's no evidence anyone is doing that.

In fact, Martin’s effort to find a silver lining for the GOP in its culture war defeats only made it more remarkable that not one 2016 candidate is trying to stake out a claim to the future-facing position suggested by Frum or Pawlenty. We are supposed to be impressed by the “moderates” in the race -- Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, South Carolina Gov. Lindsey Graham and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who have said that while they strongly disagree with the marriage equality ruling, it’s the law of the land. That’s courage?

Out on the far-right fringe, Mike Huckabee says the ruling ought to take a page from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and turn to civil disobedience on the issue. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has proposed electing judges to replace the tyrannical “robed Houdinis” who handed down decisions on Obamacare and marriage equality.

Not to be outdone, Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum predicted the ruling will legalize polygamy. “Marriage is no longer about having and raising children,” Santorum said. “It’s about two people who are in love — or, as I think we will see in the future, more than two people who are in love.

But in Wisconsin, the guy who pretended to have a new tolerance for gay marriage last year, in the midst of a close re-election race, topped them all, joining Cruz in calling for a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban gay marriage.

Scott Walker, you’ll recall, tried to play down divisive social issues like marriage equality in his 2014 re-election campaign. “I’d rather be talking in the future now more about our jobs plan and our plan for the future of the state,” he once said. “I think that’s what matters to the kids. It’s not this issue.” He even let it be known that his son had attended the wedding of a lesbian relative in 2014. And after a district court struck down Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban, he seemed to say the battle was over. “It really doesn’t matter what I think now,” Walker said, “It’s in the Constitution.”

But wait: a day after he called for a constitutional amendment letting states ban marriage equality, Politico noted that Walker didn’t even mention the issue at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, where his rivals took the opportunity to one-up one another in denouncing the court. So who knows what he really cares about.

What’s clear is that despite Martin’s optimistic analysis in the Times, not one of the GOP hopefuls intends to take the golden opportunity to pivot beyond social conservatism. And Martin explained why: white evangelical voters “can make up as much as 40 percent of a Republican presidential nominee’s vote.”

I respect Martin’s reporting, but his strangely hopeful piece reflected the mainstream media’s continuing aversion to taking in exactly how extreme the GOP has become. Remember that in 2013, we were told the party would move away from extremism on gay marriage and immigration, specifically, after Mitt Romney’s drubbing. Despite some hot air from Reince Priebus, they didn’t then – and they won’t now.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are delighted that Republicans keep wanting to play their losing hand.  “I’m asking them, please: don’t make the rights, and the hopes, of any American, a political football for the 2016 campaign,” Hillary Clinton said in Virginia on Friday. Politically, though, she’s got to hope they don’t honor her request.

By Joan Walsh