The reaction to yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear challenges to lower court rulings invalidating gay marriage bans in various states provided some insight on the cultural shift inside the Republican Party. While Senator Ted Cruz blasted the Supremes for allowing the courts to usurp the right to define marriage from the states, the silence from much of the GOP was deafening. While the issue may be important to anyone, like Cruz, who intends to run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, much of the rest of the party may be taking the hint from the courts.
Cruz’s willingness to jump out front on the issue is another indication that he intends to add social conservatives to a coalition that already includes Tea Party stalwarts as well as some who are enamored of his strong foreign-policy stands. But while he won’t be the only candidate seeking their votes, it’s not exactly surprising that he didn’t face much competition for airtime about the decision yesterday from leading Republicans. The position of anyone nominated by the party will be support for a definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. But though support for measures limiting abortions or banning late-term procedures that are seen as akin to infanticide remains strong among most Republican constituencies, the general lack of outrage about gay marriage yesterday outside of social conservative circles can easily be interpreted as indicating that most in the GOP think this is not an issue on which they think most Americans are behind them.
In choosing to punt on the appeals of various lower court decisions invalidating state measures banning gay marriage, the Supreme Court seemed to be saying that they won’t take up this issue again until one of the appeals courts is ready to uphold such laws. But in ruling in favor of gay marriage as a right that states can’t invalidate, lower federal courts are following the high court’s lead. Last year the court both allowed a state court to strike down a California referendum and separately ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s provision that barred benefits for same sex couples. While the court could have taken up any one of the appeals from states yesterday and handed down a definitive ruling on the issue, it seems to prefer to let the process unfold on a lower level. As it often has during its history, the court is listening to public opinion and what it’s hearing is that most Americans are no longer opposed to gay marriage.
The cultural shift on this issue has been as swift as it has been decisive, but as much as social conservatives are right to complain about the courts usurping the right of the people or the legislatures to make up their own minds on marriage, the polls are following popular culture on this point. Admitting this does not mean social conservatives no longer have support on any of their key issues. Americans remain deeply divided on abortion. But gay marriage is no longer a point on which most are prepared to argue. Indeed, as acceptance of the change grows more widespread with it now available in 30 states, even some conservatives are starting to admit that gays marrying doesn’t really affect them or their families.
The question is whether the Republican Party is ready to follow suit. Senator Rand Paul may currently find himself out of touch with many in his party on foreign and defense policy as the isolationist moment in American politics may be over. But as Greg Sargent noted this weekend in the Washington Post, his less strident tone on marriage may actually be more in tune with popular sentiment among Republicans than many thought.
But the problem for Republicans is that while they will be debating gay marriage, the rest of the country is no longer much interested in the discussion. Indeed, Paul’s argument that perhaps just as Republicans don’t want the government involved in their lives in other respects they might now be better off saying that it should stay out of marriage too may be a lot more popular than his foreign-policy views these days.
Social conservatives and evangelicals remain a key GOP constituency, but even if most Republicans are sympathetic to their concerns, the idea of letting the party get stuck in an argument that no longer resonates for most of the country should alarm them. With the conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the party’s establishment waving the white flag on gay marriage, this is one issue on which social conservatives may have lost all of their key allies.