Global Insight

March 26, 2013 5:10 pm

Republicans must rethink gay marriage

The issue could turn younger voters away for a generation
John Feinblatt (R) and Jonathan Mintz (L) celebrate after marrying with their daughters Maeve (BOTTOM-L) and Georgia at Gracie Mansion on July 24, 2011 in New York City. The longtime partners work at City Hall for Mayor Bloomberg who officiated the wedding; today was the first day gay couples were allowed to legally marry in New York state©Getty

State of the union: 20 per cent of Americans live in a state where gay marriage is legal

It is remarkable to remember that only a year ago, when Barack Obama came out in favour of gay marriage, it seemed like he had been bounced into the position by unscripted comments from his deputy, Joe Biden.

Now, it is all but inconceivable that the president, or any Democrat running for national office, could be against same-sex marriages.

Not only is gay marriage in sync with Mr Obama’s new Democratic coalition, of young people, minorities, women and professionals, the position has majority public support as well, according to opinion polls.

The law of the land may be moving their way too, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases this week challenging barriers to same-sex marriages.

In keeping with the issue’s ecumenical evolution, the appeal against a Californian ban is being argued jointly by David Boies and Ted Olson, the liberal and conservative lawyers, respectively, who opposed each other in the bitter Bush v. Gore case to decide the 2000 election.

So where does that leave Republicans? Can their views “evolve”, as Mr Obama described his shifting position, to fall in with public sentiment and neutralise any damage from their past positions on gay rights?

Not according to Ralph Reed, a leading figure in the Christian right. In a weekend tweet, Mr Reed warned Republicans that switching positions on gay marriage was “no freebie”.

More than half of the Republican primary voters last year were evangelicals and they made up 44 per cent of their supporters in November’s election, he said. If Republicans embrace gay marriage: “They walk.”

Mr Reed’s pointed intervention embodies the dilemma facing Republicans as they emerge from their painful 2012 defeat, the fifth time in the past six presidential polls they have lost the popular vote.

Many Republicans argue that their policies are fine but their packaging of them falls short. With gay marriage, the argument runs, they simply have to sound more tolerant, without changing their views.

“I don’t believe we need to act like Old Testament heretics,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee told USA Today.

But all the evidence of political parties trying to remake themselves suggests that any approach that leaves policy alone and relies on simply a change in tone is a dead end.

The party has already acknowledged as much with immigration. Two up-and-coming rival senators, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, have staked out positions which could be the basis for a deal with Mr Obama to legalise the status of the 11m-odd people in the country illegally.

Mitt Romney’s abysmal showing among Hispanics and Asian-Americans in 2012 has provided more than enough impetus for the party’s leaders to get behind immigration reform.

The conservative constituency for gay marriage, however, is much narrower and the calculus different. Pragmatism does not come into play so readily in matters of faith.

So while Democratic support for gay marriage in even conservative red states has been gushing out, tracking public opinion, Republican backing has barely reached a trickle.

Only one Republican sitting senator, Rob Portman of Ohio, is on the record supporting same-sex marriages, a change prompted by his son’s declaration that he was gay.

When Mr Portman sought counsel before going public last week, he turned to a prominent Republican not often sought out for advice these days, Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay.

In politics, repackaging helps. Same-sex marriages were once portrayed by conservatives as subversive to social stability but liberals have turned the tables, selling “marriage equality” as a civil rights issue.

More to the point, public opinion is moving in only one direction. Advocates of gay marriage have been pushing at an open door.

The electoral impact of gay marriage can be overstated. If the economy stutters again under Mr Obama’s watch, that will outweigh the effect of social issues.

But just as immigration became a gateway issue for Hispanics, gay marriage is playing the same role for young people, and could help turn many of them off Republicans for a generation.

On gay marriage, as with other policies in play, Republicans will have to do more than just put on a happy face. Otherwise, the White House could remain as elusive as it has been in the past two polls.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in