The Gay Marriage Fight Shifts to the GOP

Will the GOP soft-sell its unpopular opposition to gay marriage?

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It's serendipitous that the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision whacking the odious Defense of Marriage Act on what is (as the Democratic National Committee has been pointing out today) the 100th day since the Republican National Committee issued its post-2012 autopsy, which, among other things, called for greater inclusiveness on the part of the GOP.

Despite the fact that conservative luminary Ted Olson was one of the attorneys arguing against California's Proposition 8 and other well-known conservatives (David Koch, for example) support marriage equality, the Republican Party isn't about to embrace gay marriage. But it's going to face a choice in the coming months and years regarding how it voices its opposition. Does this become a 2004-style frontline issue for the party – will we get 37 DOMA re-enactment votes? – or does it become a second-tier issue, ritually mentioned but without enthusiasm? In other words, the Supreme Court today opened a new front in the GOP's establishment-versus-base civil war.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

On one side are Republicans worried – a la the RNC post-mortem – about the party's national viability and its image as an intolerant white men's club. They see that U.S. public opinion has passed a tipping point (55 percent support same-sex marriage, according to the latest poll from CNN, a figure that is in line with other recent surveys) and understand that, given that support for marriage equality is stronger with younger voters, the GOP's deficit on the issue is only going to worsen. So, for example, you have conservatives like Carrie Sheffield writing in USA Today that not only is today's Supreme Court decision right on the merits, but also on the politics:

Romney … desperately needed young voters voters who support gay marriage with an eye popping margin. About 81% of adults under age 30 [are] now supporting gay marriage. Too many young voters (sadly) are uninterested in complex debates over government balance sheets, trade deficits and sequesters. The political right has compelling, bold arguments on fiscal issues, but their arguments against gay marriage ring hollow for most Millennials. And since homosexuality cuts across every socio-economic metric, it's easy for young voters to be personally aggrieved by the GOP's platform denying marriage equality to their cousin, friend or grandparent.

Independents also favor gay marriage, with 62% backing the idea. In the words of the GOP's own 2012 post-mortem, "devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue." Independent voters are key to Republicans' future relevance, and gay marriage is now a reality that party leaders cannot afford to obstruct.

And Republicans who want to avoid a big fight on this don't necessarily support gay marriage; they simply don't see the upside of vocally pushing an issue that's increasingly unpopular with the country. So House Republican leaders – who spent millions of the taxpayers' dollars on this fight – gave a ritualistic, if somewhat muted response to the ruling today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

On the other side are the culture war dead-enders, the members of the conservative media-entertainment complex and base voters who have never gotten over the idea that America is an inherently conservative country.

Their response was anything but muted. Rush Limbaugh, for example, said that the ruling reflected the "disintegration of the United States"; Glenn Beck said that this decision will lead to polygamy; Fox Radio's Todd Starnes tweeted that soon "they [will] outlaw the Bible as hate speech";  former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee emailed supporters saying that his first reaction to the ruling was that "Jesus wept," and that the Supreme Court had made itself bigger than god (never mind that for its first millennium the Christian church left marriage up to the state); the American Principles Project's Maggie Gallagher issued a statement saying that this ruling "is the Roe v. Wade of this generation, not this generation's Brown v. the Board of Education," because it thwarted popular will (never mind that Brown thwarted popular will in the South as well).

Oh boy, do they want a fight. Ralph Reed, the Christian conservative activist who has been fighting this fight since DOMA was signed, told Politico that evangelicals will look to the Congress for legislation to counter this decision. And what that wing of the party wants, that wing of the party gets. Witness the vote in the U.S. House earlier this month to ban abortions later than 20 weeks and the Texas state bill that would do the same thing that state Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered yesterday, not to mention ultrasound bills that conservatives in other states have passed or are trying to pass.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Was the Supreme Court Right on Gay Marriage?]

The party is facing the prospect of this issue becoming an ongoing reminder to young and swing voters that the GOP reputation for intolerance is well deserved.

And that's just in the run-up to the 2016 presidential primaries. "Any Republican who runs for president will have to support [the party's opposition to gay marriage]," the National Organization for Marriage's Brian Brown told Politico. "He will lose in the primary if he does not. Period." Note the assumption that any Republican running for president will be a "he" … but that's another issue.

And prominent Iowa conservative organizer Bob Vander Plaats told Politico that he and his followers intend to keep the issue prominent in the presidential selection process, vowing not to let candidates use a "let the states decide" dodge. "I view marriage and abortion much like I view slavery. If slavery is wrong in Massachusetts I believe it's also wrong in Iowa. I believe if abortion's wrong, abortion's wrong," he said. "It's going to be an issue going into 2016."

Please, please, please: Will whoever is moderating Republican debates running up to the Iowa caucuses please ask the candidates whether marriage equality is akin to slavery?