Republicans won’t embrace same-sex marriage anytime soon
In the wake of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that his son is gay, and his son’s coming out prompting the senator to support gay marriage, it has become commonplace to assert that Republicans are about to flip-flop on the gay marriage issue. Activists on both sides seem to agree. The Log Cabin Republicans triumphantly declared: “If there was any doubt that the conservative logjam on the issue of civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples has broken, Senator Portman’s support for the freedom to marry has erased it.” On Sunday, Karl Rove appeared to take leave of his senses when he said he could imagine the 2016 Republican presidential nominee supporting legal same-sex marriage. And with the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to gay marriage bans this week, many observers are predicting that one or more conservative justices will join with the Court’s liberal wing to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and possibly California’s Proposition 8 as well.
On the other side, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins has warned that, “If the RNC abandons marriage, evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely – or move to create a third party. Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority.”
Both sides are getting way ahead of events. I can’t predict the Court’s ruling, but I can predict the Republican Party’s stance on gay rights for the foreseeable future: hostile opposition. Many observers lump gay rights with immigration – an issue on which the GOP has begun to shift leftward – as social issues on which the Republicans must modernize or die. Presumably, the logic follows, they will choose accommodation over death.
Immigration does have some similarities to gay rights, but examining those similarities suggests that the Republican Party is not going to embrace gay rights just yet. On gay marriage, the GOP isn’t in the same place as it is on immigration. Rather, it is in the same place it was in the last election cycle.
Think back to 2004: George W. Bush, on the advice of Rove, supported comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He also reached out to Latinos and won around 40 percent of the Latino vote. But the anti-immigration backlash in his party during his second term was ferocious. 2005-2007 saw the rise to prominence of the Minutemen, a vigilante border patrol group opposed to illegal immigration, the notoriously outspoken anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, and the failure of immigration reform in Congress. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a co-sponsor of the legislation, shifted rightward on immigration and was demolished by President Obama among Latino voters, 67 percent to 31 percent, in 2008.
So, by 2009, the sharper minds in the GOP could see that the party’s best path forward on immigration was to move back toward the center. But it didn’t. The frustration among the conservative base continued to rise, and Republicans continued to pander to it. McCain, fighting off a right wing challenge in his 2010 Senate primary, cut an ad growling that it was time to “complete the dang fence,” along the U.S-Mexico border. In the 2012 Republican primaries, the candidates vied to see who could go farthest to the right on the issue, with Herman Cain memorably proposing a fence that would electrocute anyone climbing over it.
It was only after suffering an even worse defeat among Latino voters, 72 percent to 23 percent, in 2012, that Republican voters and Fox News talking heads were sufficiently despondent that they were willing to accept an immigration deal. And it is still extremely tenuous. There are grumblings of “amnesty” every time an actual proposal is put forth.
Nor is it the case that the conservative movement has been vanquished and the pragmatists are in control of the GOP tout court. Rove’s creation of a Super PAC to defeat Tea Party insurgents caused a furor on the right. Conservatives have launched a Super PAC of their own to serve as a counter-force and written Rove out of the movement. Perhaps being so out of touch with his own party’s base is what led Rove to ridiculously assert that a pro-gay marriage Republican could make it through a gauntlet of religious and social conservative-dominated Republican primaries.
While Tea Party-backed nominees for Senate have lost general elections, they have succeeded in ousting respected, and reasonably conservative, incumbent senators such as Dick Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah, for infractions such as supporting nuclear arms control treaties or the TARP bailouts. Republicans in Congress remain desperately fearful of their base. That is why they remain opposed to an assault weapons ban, despite the public outcry after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As for gay marriage, House Speaker John Boehner says he remains opposed to it, “And I can’t imagine that position would ever change.” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio – who delivered the keynote speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention and the party’s State of the Union response, and who is leading the charge for an immigration deal – reasserted his own opposition.
So we have a long way to go on Republicans and gay rights. Republicans in Congress don’t even support banning discrimination against gays in the workplace, despite the fact that the position draws between two-thirds and three-quarters support in public opinion polls.
Portman is the exception that proves the rule: it seems he was only capable of considering the human impact of prohibiting a gay person from marrying his life partner after his son came out. (And even then, it took Portman two years, conveniently long enough for him to be safely past the vice-presidential vetting process in 2012). The essence of being a Republican is a lack of political empathy towards strangers, whether they are gay, disabled or poor. Unless every Republican in Congress discovers they have a gay son or daughter, they are not all about to realize, or care, what pain their current stance causes.
So Republicans will have to see not only clear majorities of the public supporting gay marriage, but evidence that it is actually costing them elections. If they lose the 2016 presidential election, such a reckoning may occur thereafter. But expecting a reversal faster than that is premature.
PHOTO: U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) speaks to the crowd at Ohio Republican U. S. Sen. candidate Josh Mandel’s election night rally in Columbus, Ohio, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk