The Grand Old Party’s future shock
Friday’s Supreme Court ruling shows Republicans fumbling for answers in an America changing faster than they are.
In a week of painstakingly drafted Supreme Court decisions, no literary effort was crafted more gingerly than Jeb Bush’s statement following the high court’s 5-to-4 endorsement of same-sex marriage rights on Friday.
First, the former Florida governor paid homage to his beliefs and to evangelical political orthodoxy. “Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage,” he wrote.
Then, he quickly pivoted to the more popular political center: “I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments. In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side.”
That statement — a live-and-let-live strategy that closely mirrors his brother George’s approach to abortion a decade ago — underscored Bush’s personal opposition to same-sex marriage as a devout Catholic. But more than anything, it revealed a maneuvering, modern conservative worried about his party being caught on the wrong side of history — whatever his personal view of the issue.
Democrats and many other Americans of varying political stripes enjoyed a feel-good national moment, but the GOP wasn’t invited to the party — Republicans were worrying about how to keep from being trampled by the accelerating gallop of 21st-century social change.
“In the state of Nevada, you can get married to a hooker who you met at the bar 30 minutes after meeting her with a blood alcohol level of 3.2 by an Elvis at a drive-through,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain. “At the end of the day, it’s an untenable position to be against ultimately millions of actual Americans’ marriages and commitments.”
Richard Land, the firebrand evangelical leader who wrote the famous letter urging Christians to support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, summed up the view of many on the right tier of the Republican presidential field. “It’s a sad day for the country, and now the battlefield shifts to freedom of conscience,” he told POLITICO. “It’s going to be an important issue in 2016.”
It’s also a matter of old-fashioned wedge politics, and Democrats are delighted at the growing roster of issues pulling the GOP backward through time. Last week, Southern Republicans were stunned by the wave of public, bipartisan sentiment against state-sanctioned displays of the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston massacre. After a stumbling start, local Republicans acted with deliberate speed, and not just in South Carolina: Alabama’s Robert Bentley, one of the country’s most conservative governors, ordered the rebel battle flag lowered over the capitol in Montgomery, where the Civil War was declared and George Wallace delivered his “segregation forever” speech.
Still, many standard-issue Republican positions, though they remain regional political assets in the South and parts of the Midwest, are underwater: The GOP’s blanket opposition to minimum-wage hikes, a more open immigration policy and background checks on guns and lockstep support for tough anti-abortion laws and tax breaks for the wealthy all poll relatively poorly.
“The problem for the Republican Party is that you have a recalcitrant minority trying to hold off a tolerant majority,” says David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute. “The increased salience of social issues is a challenge for Republicans. Candidates like Bush — who have to think about running in a general election — know there’s a shift going on and they have to react. … That’s why most of the [top-tier] candidates will try to avoid these issues. But the ones who aren’t at that level, they are going to keep bringing them back.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the most conservative of the top GOP candidates, put his rivals on notice by calling for a constitutional amendment to allow states to roll back the ruling. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, accused “five unelected judges” of redefining “the foundational unit that binds together our society.” Mike Huckabee, a long-shot Arkansas ex-governor staking everything on an appeal to evangelicals, made an opaque reference to civil disobedience. “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch,” he said in a statement as gay and lesbian couples were posting their plans to wed on thousands of Facebook pages. “We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”
That may be smart primary politics in states like Iowa, but it’s a potentially toxic general-election position. Six out of 10 Republican voters oppose gay marriage — but most national polls show that between 54 percent and 57 percent of American voters as a whole back same-sex marriage, a number that has increased dramatically in the past five years. Ominously for GOP candidates, 60 percent of young Republicans support the court’s move. Even among white evangelical Protestants, support for gay marriage has increased from 13 percent in 2001 to about 27 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center.
The culture wars of the past three decades have taken their toll on the conservative brand. Self-declared conservatives still outnumber liberals, but Ronald Reagan’s success at turning the L-word into an epithet has come undone. Gallup polling out last week suggested 24 percent of Americans identify as liberal, a high-water mark since at least 1992. Though at 38 percent, self-identified conservatives still outnumber them, it’s a sign of new muscle for the left.
With numbers like these, the Republican establishment is eager to shove most social issues into the closet for 2016 — as they did successfully in the 2014 midterms, when the party showcased candidates like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, camera-ready social conservatives who are less likely to push their agenda than a previous generation of candidates.
“From the top down, you are seeing Republicans really trying to thread the needle on this issue, to remain consistently opposed to marriage equality while not trying to alienate voters in the general election,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that has long advocated for the rights of gay and lesbian conservatives.
Even Angelo, who celebrated the ruling, is eager to put it behind Republicans — and urged the 2016 presidential candidates to focus on issues he believes should dominate the election: the economy, Hillary Clinton’s woes, and the Obama administration’s struggle to fight the Islamic State. “It’s not going to go away,” he said of the gay-marriage divide. “But there are civil wars on the Democratic side as well. It’s no accident that Bernie Sanders is surging in New Hampshire — it’s not that his opinion on marriage is doing that — it’s about income inequality and immigration and issues where he’s beating Clinton.”
Still, all the GOP infighting has obscured the tortured history of the gay-marriage issue in the Democratic Party on victory-lap day.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton flat-out refused to endorse marriage equality in the 2008 campaign — when it didn’t poll quite as well as it does these days — and initially refused to condemn a senior Bush administration official who declared homosexuality “immoral.”
That didn’t stop White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett this week from tweeting Obama’s observation that “When I became President, same sex marriage was legal in only two states” — a time when he was still evolving on the issue.
Over the past several years, Democrats have largely closed ranks over social issues — in part because young voters tend to be socially liberal, in part because more conservative Democrats have been defeated by Republicans or frog-marched out of the party.
The court did the GOP a big favor, though, by disposing of the gay marriage (and Obamacare) rulings six months before the first primary ballots are cast, giving the Republican camps time to sort out their differences. For the moment, the most unifying default position for Republicans is to blame the Roberts court for the Obamacare and marriage decisions, even though evangelicals played a critical role in winning the appointments of its ostensibly conservative majority. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s response to the marriage decision was dour enough, but his disappointment was directed more at the court than at backers of the marriage equality movement. “We live in a republic and must abide by the law,” Rubio said in a more-in-sorrow-than-anger statement. “As we look ahead, it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.”
But no serious candidate has steered as close to the center on gay marriage as Bush. He supported Indiana’s anti-gay-marriage religious freedom law, then subsequently told donors he wanted to avoid all “the yelling and screaming” of the debate.
But the demands of the GOP debate and primary process are sure to drag everyone to the right — because white, religious-minded social conservatives participate in disproportionate numbers. By wedging moderate New Hampshire between social-conservative bastions like Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidates are forced into rhetorical contortions that muddy their messages and force them to mix conservative nostalgia with a wink to trending, moderate undercurrents.
“You’ve got a lot of social conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina, and you’ve got more a pragmatic or, I guess, an economic electorate in places like New Hampshire and Michigan and probably Florida,” said Craig Stevens, a Republican activist in the Granite State. “Folks are picking their battleground.”
In the aftermath of the gay marriage ruling, Stevens said establishment-oriented candidates are pantomiming another Bush — George W. Bush — who walked the finest of lines on abortion: He acknowledged Roe v. Wade as the law of the land but urged the nation to reduce the number of abortions. The parallel, Schmidt said, would be a call to “ensure that marriage is strong in America” and reject incursions on religious institutions whose faith precludes same-sex unions.
It was George W. Bush and his aide Karl Rove who saw the Republican Party’s demographic nightmare coming 15 years ago, when they pushed conservatives to embrace immigration reform as a way to woo young Hispanic voters. And gay marriage, above all else, is a generational issue.
“We look at this issue as left and right to some degree. It’s really under 40-over 40. Under-40 Republicans support the ruling,” said Schmidt, who thinks Walker should drop his marriage amendment idea for the sake of the party.
“Support for gay marriage is not going to start suddenly contracting now that it’s legal everywhere,” he added. “This will be the last presidential election where you have Republicans trapped into the positions they have on this issue because it’s no longer a political issue. This is a settled issue now.”