Opposition To Same-Sex Marriage No Longer A Winning Issue For The GOP
Opposition to marriage equality is no longer the wedge issue it used to be.
President Obama’s decision to decline to prosecute the appeal of a decision declaring part of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional has led some social conservatives to call on the GOP to once again make opposition to same-sex marriage part of the party’s political agenda:
NEW YORK — Angered conservatives are vowing to make same-sex marriage a front-burner election issue, nationally and in the states, following the Obama administration’s announcement that it will no longer defend the federal law denying recognition to gay married couples.
“The ripple effect nationwide will be to galvanize supporters of marriage,” said staff counsel Jim Campbell of Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group.
On the federal level, opponents of same-sex marriage urged Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to intervene on their own to defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, against pending court challenges.
“The president has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging Congress,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. “It is incumbent upon the Republican leadership to respond by intervening to defend DOMA, or they will become complicit in the president’s neglect of duty.”
Conservatives also said they would now expect the eventual 2012 GOP presidential nominee to highlight the marriage debate as part of a challenge to Obama, putting the issue on equal footing with the economy.
Gay rights activists welcomed Wednesday’s announcement from the Justice Department, sensing that it would bolster the prospects for same-sex marriage in the courts. Among Democrats in Congress, there was praise for Obama’s decision and talk of proposing legislation to repeal the law altogether.
“I opposed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. It was the wrong law then; it is the wrong law now,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. “My own belief is that when two people love each other and enter the contract of marriage, the federal government should honor that.”
Perkins, the Family Research Council leader, suggested that House Republicans would risk alienating their conservative base if they did not tackle the marriage issue head-on.
“The president was kind of tossing this cultural grenade into the Republican camp,” he said.
“If they ignore this, it becomes an issue that will lead to some very troubling outcomes for Republicans.”
Despite the strident words of Perkins and others, thought, this isn’t as easy an issue as it was for the GOP in the 1990s or during the 2004 election cycle and many conservatives have diverged from the social conservatives position to take a much more libertarian view of marriage equality:
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to abandon his legal support for the Defense of Marriage Act has generated only mild rebukes from the Republicans hoping to succeed him in 2012, evidence of a shifting political climate in which social issues are being crowded out by economic concerns.
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that after two years of defending the law — hailed by proponents in 1996 as an cornerstone in the protection of traditional values — the president and his attorney general have concluded it is unconstitutional.
In the hours that followed, Sarah Palin’s Facebook site was silent. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was close-mouthed. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, released a Web video — on the labor union protests in Wisconsin — and waited a day before issuing a marriage statement saying he was “disappointed.”
Others, like Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, took their time weighing in, and then did so only in the most tepid terms. “The Justice Department is supposed to defend our laws,” Mr. Barbour said.
Asked if Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana and a possible presidential candidate, had commented on the marriage decision, a spokeswoman said that he “hasn’t, and with other things we have going on here right now, he has no plans.”
The sharpest reaction came from Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in an interview here during a stop to promote his new book, who called the administration’s decision “utterly inexplicable.”
A few years ago, the president’s decision might have set off an intense national debate about gay rights. But the Republicans’ reserved response this week suggests that Mr. Obama may suffer little political damage as he evolves from what many gay rights leaders saw as a lackluster defender of their causes into a far more aggressive advocate.
“The wedge has lost its edge,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for President George W. Bush during his 2004 campaign, when gay marriage ballot measures in a dozen states helped turn out conservative voters.
Prominent Republicans like Dick Cheney, the former vice president, and Barbara Bush, daughter of the former president, have defended the right of gays to marry. And Mr. Obama has been emboldened by the largely positive response to his recent, and successful, push for Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on gays serving openly.
At the same time, the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the success that Republicans had last year in attacking Democratic candidates on economic issues, has pushed the debate over abortion and gay rights to the back burner.
“I don’t think this is the issue that it once was,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “I think that the economic issues are so big that this one pales in comparison.”
More importantly, public opposition to same-sex marriage has eased significantly in the decade and a half since this became a battleground in the so-called “culture wars.” One recent CNN poll, for example., showed that the public is nearly evenly divided on the issue, with a slight majority actually now supporting same-sex unions. Other polling has consistently shown that, at best, gay marriage is now a 50-50 issue in the United States as a whole, which is a far cry from the days when the numbers in opposition to the idea were in the 70% range. Attitudes have also changed significantly on public acceptance of gay relationships in general.
Because of this, it just doesn’t make electoral sense for the GOP to concentrate so heavily on an issue like same-sex marriage when its clear that, no matter what stand it takes, it’s going to be annoying at least 50% of the population. In the 2004 election, referendums to ban same-sex marriage helped bring socially conservative voters to the polls in 2004 and arguably helped George W. Bush defeat John Kerry in states like Ohio. Today, except in limited Congressional districts, it’s hard to conceive that a similar campaign strategy would work. Voters are focused on the economy, and on the size and scope of government, appeals to divisive social issues just aren’t working the same way they used to.
So, despite the strident demands of social conservatives, I don’t expect the GOP to make a major push on same-sex marriage, not now and not during the 2012 campaign. Oh yes, there will be candidates who will push that button during the Presidential primaries. especially in states where the issue is still popular. Nationwide. however, and as a strategy for the General Election, the GOP will need to stay away from this issue if it wants to win in November