The past few weeks have been particularly tumultuous for the country on the topic of gay rights. On March 15 Rob Portman, a Republican Senator from Ohio, became the first Republican Senator to publicly assert his support for gay marriage (motivated mostly by his son’s admission that he is gay). Less than two weeks later, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments for two landmark cases in gay rights: Hollingsworth v. Perry, on the constitutionality of Prop 8, which banned gay marriage, in California; and United States v. Windsor, challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). These events have resulted in an explosion of coverage of the topic of gay rights, with some interesting insights into how both the public and their representatives in the government are responding.
Various national polls have shown that support for gay marriage has been rising steadily since the early 2000’s, and as of 2011 more Americans support gay marriage than oppose it. While the majority in support is not quite overwhelming – the highest support recorded in these polls is 58% in an ABC News/Washington Post poll (opposition at 36%) – it is established and constantly growing. And although it is clear that young people vigorously believe that gay marriage should be legal, with levels of support in the 80’s (depending on which poll you consider), support for gay marriage is increasing at the same rate in all age ranges. Given this obvious and continuing shift in public opinion, how is the party known for its opposition to same-sex marriage reacting?
Oddly, the Republican party seems to be resisting this sea change. On the national level, Republicans seem to be trying to soften their views without outright abandoning them. After her Democratic colleague, Mark Begich, endorsed the idea of same-sex marriage, Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was quoted as saying her views on the topic were “evolving.” Arizona’s freshman senator Jeff Flake admitted on “Meet the Press” over the weekend that a Republican presidential nominee that supported same-sex marriage is “inevitable,” although the senator’s own opposition to the idea remains unchanged. Even the RNC’s chairman, Reince Priebus, has recently tried to walk back his party’s position on same-sex marriage, saying that while the party will adhere to their stated platform, they don’t “need to act like Old Testament heretics.”
However, on the state and local levels, Republican politicians seem to be adamantly standing their ground. An article published today on Talking Points Memo chronicles some reactions from state and local Republican representatives, showing that on the smaller scale, many party loyals are not backing down.
After considering the readings for the last few weeks, none of this is really surprising. The Republicans who are loudly sticking to their opposition to gay marriage all come from or represent recognizably conservative parts of the country – Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan. At this level, it may be that people are still largely resistant to the idea of gay marriage, and it is in the politician’s interest to reflect that resistance. The more interesting conundrum here is in the need for a unified party platform. How can the Republican party compete on a national level when the interests of the country conflict with the interests of the districts on such a central issue? Can a Republican presidential candidate win on a platform that contradicts national polls? And while it may be the case, for the next few years, that one can, when is the tipping point finally reached that pushes Republicans to change?