Republicans Are Openly Softening Their Tone on Same-Sex Marriage

But they have a tricky line to walk.

Stuart Gaffney (R) poses with his husband John Lewis (L) as celebrations ensue in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, California, June 26, 2012, after the US Supreme Court struck down The Defense of Marriage Act.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
April 14, 2014, 10:48 a.m.

Something strange happened last week­end. At a re­cent con­ser­vat­ive con­fab that at­trac­ted many top Re­pub­lic­ans, no one railed against same-sex mar­riage.

The New Hamp­shire Free­dom Sum­mit — a week­end-long event hos­ted by the Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity Found­a­tion and Cit­izens United that at­trac­ted more than 700 at­tendees — fea­tured speeches from people like Mike Hucka­bee, Newt Gin­grich, and Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn.

At the sum­mit, Re­pub­lic­ans spoke about pro­mot­ing a “cul­ture of life,” of erect­ing bor­der fences and bat­tling Obama­care’s con­tra­cept­ive man­date, but cri­tiques of states’ same-sex mar­riage laws were curi­ously ab­sent. And when the top­ic did sur­face in speeches by people like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, they show­cased a softer side of their party.

So­cial con­ser­vat­ives may not have raised the white flag on same-sex mar­riage yet, but their party’s lead­ers are in search of something of a com­prom­ise. Dur­ing Paul’s speech, he in­sisted on his so­cial con­ser­vat­ism while also leav­ing the door open for states to pass gay-mar­riage laws.

From BuzzFeed:

“I’m a so­cial con­ser­vat­ive,” Paul went on. “I’m a be­liev­er in tra­di­tion­al mar­riage. I be­lieve that, you know, there is something im­port­ant to life, and it comes from God. But I’m also a be­liev­er that a lot of the way our coun­try was foun­ded was upon fed­er­al­ism.” He ar­gued states should be al­lowed to ex­per­i­ment with their own defin­i­tions of mar­riage, and de­clared, “I think there’s an ar­rog­ance to hav­ing ab­so­lute lit­mus tests.”

That states-rights rhet­or­ic per­meated the event’s speeches. “We have 50 states with dif­fer­ent val­ues, with dif­fer­ent mores, and we would ex­pect dif­fer­ent states to ad­opt dif­fer­ent laws,” Cruz told the audi­ence. “I don’t think the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should be try­ing to force the states to ad­opt gay mar­riage in all 50 states. If the cit­izens of the state make that de­cision, they have the con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to do that.”

In Feb­ru­ary, Cruz and fel­low Sen. Mike Lee in­tro­duced the State Mar­riage De­fense Act — a bill that would pro­hib­it the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment from de­fin­ing mar­riage at the state level.

Even Rep. Steve King, who is vehe­mently anti-gay mar­riage, said “we need to con­cede” that pub­lic opin­ion on the is­sue is shift­ing.

The idea, seem­ingly, is to shift the ar­gu­ment against gay mar­riage from an eth­ic­al one to a con­sti­tu­tion­al one. It’s a win-win for Re­pub­lic­ans caught between their con­ser­vat­ive base and the more lib­er­al young voters they are try­ing to con­vert. By ar­guing that states should be al­lowed to pass whatever laws they see fit, Re­pub­lic­ans like Cruz can re­main true to a con­sti­tu­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive im­age without ali­en­at­ing either side too much.

The con­ser­vat­ive crowd may have been dis­ap­poin­ted by this softened rhet­or­ic. Audi­ence mem­bers whooped when Don­ald Trump prom­ised to build a bor­der fence “like you’ve nev­er seen,” and booed at Jeb Bush’s sug­ges­tion that il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion is some­times an “act of love.”

In polls, voters have long said that the state of the eco­nomy is the most im­port­ant prob­lem fa­cing the coun­try, far more im­port­ant than any so­cial is­sue. A 2012 Pew poll found that just 28 per­cent of voters thought of gay mar­riage as a “very im­port­ant” is­sue — down from 34 per­cent in 2004 and lower than any oth­er so­cial is­sue lis­ted.

Still, gay mar­riage is an is­sue that could eas­ily make Re­pub­lic­ans seem tone-deaf to­ward young voters. A whop­ping ma­jor­ity of 18- to 29-year-olds — 81 per­cent — be­lieve same-sex mar­riage should be leg­al, along with 61 per­cent of young Re­pub­lic­ans.

That jux­ta­pos­i­tion of Re­pub­lic­an val­ues, young and old, has be­come a ripe tar­get for par­ody. Just watch the most re­cent epis­ode of Sat­urday Night Live, which opened with a sketch about Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear­ing at Coachella to woo young voters.

“A lot of you out there are prob­ably in fa­vor of gay mar­riage, right?” Fake Jeb Bush asked the crowd, to sup­port­ive ap­plause.

“We thought so!” Fake Paul Ry­an con­tin­ued. “Well you’re in luck, be­cause the new GOP is… not go­ing to talk about it as much.”

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated who hos­ted the Free­dom Sum­mit. It was the Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity Found­a­tion, not Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity.

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