Explaining The GOP’s Relative Silence On Same-Sex Marriage

Republican politicians have largely avoided the topic of same-sex marriage since President Obama's announcement. Why?

In the week or so since President Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage, the one remarkable thing has been the fact that, for the most part, Republican politicians, as well as Mitt Romney and his campaign surrogates, have been relatively silent about the issues. Yes, there were some initial comments criticizing the President for a politically motivated announcement, but for the most part leading Republicans have responded to this development by increasing the discussion of the economy and the budget. Notwithstanding the insistence of people like Rick Santorum, this is a fairly smart strategy on the GOP’s part.

The question is why we’re seeing this. In part, no doubt, it’s driven by recent polling that shows that same-sex marriage is supported by a slight majority of Americans, a number that increases to nearly 2/3 of all respondents if you make the choice “same-sex marriage and/or civil unions.” That’s certainly part of it, but it strikes me as an incomplete explanation. After all, just the day before Obama’s announcement an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians had approved a Constitutional Amendment that bars both same-sex marriage and civil unions, just the latest in a string of 30-odd referendums stretching back to 2004 that has all been won by the “traditional marriage” crowd. Clearly, there’s still some segment of the voting public that is open to the argument of the marriage equality opponents. So, there must be something else going on.

Over at Forbes, Josh Barro thinks its because Republican elected officials are getting pressure from friends, family members, and donors:

Only a handful of states have legalized gay marriage, but among upscale people in New York and Washington, opposition to gay marriage is now impolite. And expressing opposition in such a setting is exhausting.

I’m not talking about “the Georgetown cocktail party circuit.” I’m talking about Republicans politicians’ own wives and children, their young staffers, and even in a lot of cases, their donors. How many Republican members of Congress have children like Meghan McCain, who are reproaching them at home when they go out and talk about how terrible gay marriage is? I bet it’s a lot.

To be clear, I think this is a great thing. Republican elected officials are feeling acute elite pressure on gay marriage, and that’s making it more difficult for them to pander to mass prejudices against gays, even when doing so might be a winning move electorally. And in a lot of cases, that elite pressure is coming from inside the house.

Conor Friedersdorf agrees:

Among the conservative and Catholic families I was surrounded by growing up in Orange County, California, there’s a solid majority where parents and their now adult kids have very different opinions about the rise of gay marriage in America. And it’s one of the political disagreements that tends to come up at the kitchen dinner table. That isn’t to say my impressions prove anything. But given the polling data we’ve seen showing a generational difference in support for gay marriage, it would be fascinating to see a study about whether having children makes older people more or less likely to change their minds about same sex marriage, or more or less likely to shift the degree of their opposition to it.

There are a lot of abstract arguments for and against on this issue. In my offline life, I’ve found older adults, and especially family members who love me (and are aware of my impending nuptials), are far more likely to be swayed by the pointed question, “If I was gay, wouldn’t you still want me to be able to get married and share my life with someone I love, and who loves me?”

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this were true. Politicians are human beings with families and it’s only natural that they’re going to be influenced by the exhortations and opinions of their wives, children, friends, and (of course) donors. Sometimes, personal circumstances will be the thing that leads them to change the minds on an important issue. That may be the reason that Dick Cheney was such an early supporter of same-sex marriage, although it’s worth noting that Cheney was never really known as a strong Social Conservative to begin with, Wyoming tends to produce Republicans of a more libertarian bent than other states for some reason.  More broadly, as we have noted here at OTB many times in the last two years or so, there is a clear demographic shift going on when it comes to gay rights. The younger one is, the more likely it is that one supports things like same-sex marriage and the ability of gay couples to adopt. The people in that age group are now the children of the people in positions of political influence, and they’re likely having some influence on their parents.

At the same time, though, I’ve got to believe that there’s no small degree of naked self-interest here. Republican leaders are smart enough to read the polls and to realize that opposition to same-sex marriage is ultimately a losing position. The longer the GOP remains identified with it, the worse off it will be when the people who are now part of those younger demographics I spoke of become older and become a larger part of the voting pool. Emphasizing those positions is fast becoming a long-term loser. Moreover, in the short-term it is fairly clear that the issues that are going to drive voters to the polls in November are jobs and the economy, not cultural issues. Spending any significant time talking about something like same-sex marriage is going to tell voters that you’re out of tune.

Mark Halperin makes a similar point:

The greatest indication that public opinion on same-sex marriage has shifted over the past few years: almost no prominent GOP elected officials raised the issue after the day of the endorsement; party leaders, almost to a person, changed the topic to the economy when asked about Obama’s now evolved stance. Besides, at a time when Republicans are trying to minimize the impression that their party is intolerant, the last thing they want is to pick a big fight over personal liberty and morality. Rest assured, they will quietly communicate Obama’s position to targeted voters via religious organizations and mail as the election nears. And if Obama loses narrowly, some of his supporters are sure to look back and wonder if publicly backing gay marriage cost him his job.”

That last part may be true, I’m honestly not quite sure. Regardless of how the November elections turn out , the long term future of the gay rights in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, is rather clear. While they may be able to continue to delay the full acceptance of these things by the law, there’s very little that social conservatives are going to be able to stop it. Outside of isolated areas where people like them are the majority, I think we’re near the days where political appeal to anti-gay bigotry is a thing of the past.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Gender Issues, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    It has been remarkable.

    Obviously the GOP was eventually going to get on-board. But the utter collapse of the anti-equality side is amazing. I don’t recall ever seeing a long-established consensus on something so emotional evaporate quite this quickly.

    There are times I’m forced to kind of like my fellow Americans.

  2. @michael reynolds:

    I don’t recall ever seeing a long-established consensus on something so emotional evaporate quite this quickly.

    Prohibition. And for much the same reason. Enforcing morality on an unwilling victim can only be done through brutality, and when that brutality is made so obvious that it can’t be denied, most Americans don’t have the endurance to keep doing it.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    Within the Republican camp all the noise is coming from the extremely active religious base, the secular fiscal hawks are along for the ride on this issue.

    To me, at its core, the issue of Gay Marriage is one that should appeal to traditional libertarians, it should appeal to more secularly based Republicans. Perhaps those types are heard from in polling, but not in party politics?

  4. hoob says:

    After all, just the day before Obama’s announcement an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians had approved a Constitutional Amendment that bars both same-sex marriage and civil unions,

    I’m going to nitpick for a moment… I believe the above statement should have stated `an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians who voted…`.
    It seems we often take the voting populous and project their votes to how the general populous feels, when that’s usually not at all true. A certain segment of people vote – a very select segment votes in non-presidential elections – and to project their voting with others’ views seems incorrect.

  5. Herb says:

    Outside of isolated areas where people like them are the majority, I think we’re near the days where political appeal to anti-gay bigotry is a thing of the past.

    Man, let’s hope so. The young kids deserve a Republican party free of any gay bashing. It’s pretty much too late for my generation.

    Me, the only Republican I’d vote for is openly gay, in a committed relationship (preferably not recognized by his state) with kids, and has been howling for years about the issue. That guy doesn’t exist.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    “It’s the economy, stupid.”

  7. G.A. says:

    Dude was for gay marriage before he was against it and before he was for it…Is this not the story?

    oh of course not, silly me…

    let march/parade contiue…

  8. gVOR08 says:

    I hope all of this is true, but sometimes It seems like Republicans don’t respond quickly to events because it takes a couple weeks for Frank Luntz or whoever to test and distribute the talking points.

  9. PogueMahone says:

    …the one remarkable thing has been the fact that, for the most part, Republican politicians, as well as Mitt Romney and his campaign surrogates, have been relatively silent about the issues.

    I suppose that is remarkable. And I guess we should be happy because it’s a start.

    However, you’ll forgive me if I reserve my praise for Republicans until they not only refrain from using it as a political weapon, but until they actually begin to endorse the idea.

    Cheers.

  10. Facebones says:

    I’ll know mariage equality has been achieved when the chowderheads at NRO start posting revisionist history about how Republicans have always been the real friends of the gays and the Democrats are teh real bigots.

  11. mantis says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Prohibition. And for much the same reason. Enforcing morality on an unwilling victim can only be done through brutality, and when that brutality is made so obvious that it can’t be denied, most Americans don’t have the endurance to keep doing it.

    That’s not why prohibition was repealed. The reasons were that it didn’t work, it gave rise to powerful organized crime, and the government was losing a major tax revenue source in the midst of the Great Depression. Add to that the fact that prohibition, unlike the lack of legal gay marriage, was a new thing–an experiment, and a failed one.

  12. Jenos Idanian says:

    But… I’m confused. What’s this about Cheney? According to our own Norm, Cheney essentially disowned his daughter when she came out as a lesbian. How is it now he’s listed as supporting gay marriage?

  13. Racehorse says:

    @hoob: This is certainly true about voting percentages. In 1968, if more Democrats had voted instead of sitting out, Humphrey would have won (he lost in a very close race). As one person stated after the NC vote: people answer surveys one way and vote another.
    Most people are concerned about the sluggish economy, job market, and cost of living. The gay marriage issue is still way off the radar out in Area 51 for 99% of the people.

  14. G.A. says:

    Dude was for gay marriage before he was against it and before he was for it

    Must be another lie I made up…..

    Because Obama would never…Just say whatever to use people…

    I must have made up the evidence that he did this also, because I don’t live in the real….

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @G.A.: There’s what you do because it’s politically expedient. There’s what you do because it is RIGHT.

    Those who continue to push against SSM are going to end on the same side as those who worked against civil rights, votes for women, and interracial marriage.

    Notice how all of those were also on the “traditional” side? Notice how no so-called “traditionalists” ever admit now that they took those positions?

  16. G.A. says:

    Those who continue to push against SSM are going to end on the same side as those who worked against civil rights, votes for women, and interracial marriage.

    Ridiculous….

    Notice how all of those were also on the “traditional” side? Notice how no so-called “traditionalists” ever admit now that they took those positions?

    I truly don’t follow your narrative. But to my point…

    Here is your guy being worshiped for politically expedient because it’s RIGHT.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aR1ekUSfyU&feature=player_embedded

    I really don’t feel like going over the projection of most everyone on this sites Nimrod complex at the moment….