What's the Way Forward for the GOP on Same-Sex Marriage?

The American Prospect/Jamelle Bouie

Yesterday, two different Republicans offered two different views of the party’s future. When asked whether the GOP would move toward the mainstream on same-sex marriage, Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee, told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that he doesn’t “see the Republican Party or most Republicans, obviously, changing in terms of believing that marriage is between one man and one woman.” And while he doesn’t oppose legal benefits for gay couples, he continues to oppose same-sex marriage and doesn’t think you’ll ever see the Republican platform change position.

On the other end, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, freshman Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona gave the opposite view, predicting that it’s “inevitable” that a Republican presidential nominee will embrace same-sex marriage and that it might be sooner than later.

On Flake’s side is the rapid march of public opinion. In just a few years, the public has gone from skepticism—with only plurality support for marriage equality—to general acceptance; well over 50 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage according to polls from CNN and The Washington Post. Support is highest among young people—a key demographic for Republican outreach.

But while the public is ready to accept same-sex marriage, the GOP coalition is less open to change. Older Americans, a key part of the Republican base, are still opposed to marriage equality, and the same goes for social conservatives, who—in addition to giving overwhelming support to Republican candidates for office—are also key members of the GOP grassroots, with a large network of donors and volunteers.

Indeed, most Republican states have bans on same-sex marriage, and few have any interest in switching gears. The vast majority of Republicans in Congress oppose marriage equality, and none of the potential GOP presidential candidates—including Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey—support marriage equality. While Washington is consumed with talk of a GOP reboot, there’s little sign it will happen around same-sex marriage. The political costs of losing support from a key coalition member, the religious right, far outweigh the potential gains, especially given the strong Democratic lean of many young voters.

We saw millions of Americans affirm same-sex relationships last week. Regardless, I think Ed Gillespie is right—it will be a long time before the Republican Party endorses same-sex marriage in its platform, if it ever does. Which leaves a question: How does the party move forward? It can’t quite embrace same-sex marriage, but it can’t adopt its earlier strategy of openly running against marriage equality.

The most likely outcome, I think, is for the GOP to just ignore the issue. Yes, in some local or congressional campaigns, candidates will still feel obligated to affirm their opposition to same-sex marriage. But in national elections, at least, Republican candidates will just stay silent. If they do speak, it will be to endorse an arrangement where gay couples receive legal benefits but it isn’t marriage—civil unions, in other words.

It’s not an optimal situation, but given the GOP’s past stance of vocal opposition, it’s a significant improvement over the alternative. Which, in the end, counts as progress.