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Republicans soul-search and strategise on gay marriage

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-04-13

With gay marriage enjoying increasing political and public support, more states legalising it and the Supreme Court hearing two landmark cases, FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at Republicans who are recalibrating their stance on the issue.

These are turbulent times for gay rights in America.

The 2012 presidential election saw referendums approving same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland, and Washington (bringing the number of states in which gay couples can marry to nine, plus Washington DC). Polls show public support for gay marriage hitting all-time highs, and the Supreme Court is currently deciding whether to extend federal benefits to married gay couples and strike down bans on same-sex marriage in California and beyond.

But the most significant shifts - small in scale, but seismic in implication - are occurring where one least expects them: on the right.

Indeed, when controversial Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh says (as he did last month) that gay marriage is “inevitable”, and Fox News’ incendiary conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly concedes (as he did days later) that “the compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals”, change is clearly afoot.

In late February, more than 100 prominent Republicans – current members of Congress, former governors, state legislators, top business leaders, aides and strategists – signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to recognise a constitutional right for gay couples to wed.

And more recently, Senators Rob Portman and Mark Kirk, of Ohio and Illinois, respectively, endorsed same-sex marriage, joining former Vice President Dick Cheney as the highest-profile Republicans to do so publicly.

‘Family links’ and young people driving change

“There is certainly movement in the party on this,” said political scientist Karlyn Bowman of right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute. “Part of what’s driving the change is that more and more Republicans have a family link to the issue. People want their gay sons and daughters to be happy.”

Indeed, Portman, like Cheney (who has a lesbian daughter), framed his position in personal terms. “This is something we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over 26 years,” he told CNN. “That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”

But there are also strategic concerns at play. Republicans are trying to regroup after Romney’s bruising loss to Obama in November, when the party’s staunchly conservative positions on issues like same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights are thought to have turned off moderate and independent voters.

“The last election was a lesson for Republicans,” said Mimi Planas, co-director of the Miami branch of Log Cabin Republicans, the main gay conservative organisation. “The tent needs to be bigger, and supporting gay marriage is part of that, especially for young people.”

A recent Time magazine cover flaunted the headline: "Gay Marriage Already Won: The Supreme Court Hasn’t Made Up Its Mind - But America Has".

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 58 percent of Americans supporting gay marriage, but a whopping 81 percent of those under aged 18 to 30 in favour.

The survey also found 52 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under the age of 50 in favour of same-sex marriage.

Younger Republicans who support gay marriage are an increasingly vocal group, with Meghan McCain - daughter of Senator (and former presidential candidate) John McCain - acting as de facto spokeswoman. Campaigns such as Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry are also gaining national attention.

“The Republican base overall remains opposed to gay marriage, but young Republicans are moving really fast on this issue,” Bowman noted.

More Republicans to ‘come out’ for gay rights?

Others believe that many more seasoned Republicans also support gay marriage, but have yet to do so openly. “What’s too infrequently noted…is how many Republicans…have privately, silently accepted and supported gays and lesbians but have stayed publicly mum, and articulated contrary positions,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently. “A big part of what’s changing now….[is] their belief that they can be true to their hearts without committing political suicide, because America has made extraordinary progress, and because there’s no turning back.”

Planas echoed that assessment. “There are Republican senators and members of Congress who’ve been in favour of marriage equality for years, but it’s been difficult for them to ‘come out of the closet’, so to speak,” she said. “Part of my job is reassuring them that if they do come out in favour of gay marriage, they’ll be fine.”

It remains to be seen whether the emerging trend of Republicans endorsing gay marriage will gather steam, or stall. But one good indication that the party’s establishment is attempting to keep up with American popular opinion was the fact that the two senators’ recent support for gay marriage barely raised party eyebrows.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has since hinted that she, too, is reconsidering her stance on the issue “very closely”.

“I’ve got two young sons who, when I ask them and their friends how they feel about gay marriage, kinda give me one of those looks like, ‘Gosh mom, why are you even asking that question?’” Murkowski told a local newspaper.

Top party officials also seemed unfazed. “[I]t’s pretty difficult for me personally to disagree with any of [Portman’s statement],” Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, posted on his Facebook page after the senator’s announcement.

And Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, reacted with similar nonchalance. “If that’s his opinion, then I support him,” he told reporters in Washington on March 18. Days later, at a gathering of Republicans in New Mexico, he reiterated the notion that the party needed to accept its pro-gay-marriage members. “We don’t have time to divide our party,” he said. “We’ve got to…[welcome] anyone who walks through that door.”

Meanwhile, scant attention was paid to same-sex marriage opponents at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, where Republicans convened to talk strategy and policy. BuzzFeed reporter Chris Geidner, who covered the event, wrote that “Opponents of gay rights spoke to a nearly empty room, while supporters had a standing-room-only crowd”.

2016 Republican presidential candidate for gay marriage?

But despite indications of Republicans re-evaluating what, in the 2004 presidential election, was widely seen as a “winning” issue for George W. Bush, there are signs that change will be slow. Top Congressional Republican John Boehner has maintained that “marriage is between a man and a woman”, while former Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum told an Iowa newspaper this week that it would be “suicidal” for conservatives to “change on this issue”.

That kind of top-level resistance has led some political analysts, like Geoffrey Skelley at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to be more measured in their assessments. “Most Republican senators and members of the House aren’t going to change their minds,” he said. “The base of support for [Republicans] is in the South, which also happens to be the most socially conservative part of the country due to the strong evangelical tradition there.”

More probable, according to Skelley, is a division pitting “libertarian-minded and economically-focused” Republicans in favour of gay marriage against “social conservatives unlikely to back off because gay marriage conflicts with their religious and moral views”.

Consequently, Skelley said, the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 is unlikely to embrace same-sex marriage. “Too much of the party belongs to the social conservative wing for that to happen,” he concluded.

Certain Republican insiders insist, however, that serious intra-party fractures over gay marriage are overblown. “Christian conservatives I know are far more concerned about abortion and life issues and religious freedom issues than same-sex marriage, even those who oppose same-sex marriage,” said Liz Mair, a strategist who was in charge of media outreach for the Republican National Committee in 2008.

Mair predicted: “I think we will have a Republican 2016 presidential candidate who is in favour of the freedom to marry”.

Right-leaning analyst Bowman does not necessarily disagree. “There would be a risk of alienating the base constituency of Southern Christian conservatives”, she said. “But it’s still conceivable to have a pro-gay-marriage Republican presidential contender emerge from the 2016 primaries.”

Mimi Planas of Log Cabin Republicans struck a more cautious note. “Republicans should favour marriage equality, since we favour individual liberties and the government staying out of our lives,” she noted. “That said, I don’t think we’re there yet for 2016.”

She is nevertheless optimistic for the subsequent presidential election. “2020 will be a whole new ball game,” she said. “This is like a baby starting to walk. They can’t quite run yet, but they’re starting to take steps. They’re starting to move forward.”

Date created : 2013-04-12

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