After yesterday's dramatic ruling from the Supreme Court effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in 11 more states (that now makes 30, plus DC), you would have thought conservatives would be expressing their outrage to anyone who would listen. But their reaction was remarkably muted. "None of the top House GOP leaders (Speaker John Boehner or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy) issued statements. Ditto the RNC," reported NBC News. "And most strikingly, we didn't hear a peep about the Supreme Court's (non)-decision on the 2014 campaign trail, including in the red-state battlegrounds." The only one who issued a thundering denunciation was Ted Cruz.
Even though the GOP's discomfort with this issue has been evident for a while, with the unofficial start of the 2016 presidential campaign just a month away (after the midterm elections are done), the issue of marriage equality is going to become positively excruciating for them. Many people saw the Court's denial of cert in the five cases they confronted yesterday as a prelude to the case they'll eventually take, the one that will probably strike down all the state bans on same-sex marriage and make marriage equality the law of the land. That could happen in the Court's current term, which runs from now until next summer. But it's even more likely that it would come in their next term, the one going between October 2015 and the summer of 2016. If that happened, it would land like a bomb in the middle of the presidential campaign.
In a certain way, the GOP's current dilemma is reminiscent of where Democratic presidential candidates were during the 2004 race, when the marriage issue burst into national attention after the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared in November 2003 that the state had to allow gay people to marry. Most of the candidates were unsure of what their position was or should be, trapped between the primary and general electorates. Howard Dean had been considered by many a wild-eyed liberal in no small part because as governor of Vermont he had signed a civil unions bill, even though he opposed full marriage rights. Before long, most of the Democrats running settled on that as their position too — civil unions yes, marriage no (the exceptions were Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun, all of whom supported marriage equality). None of them seemed to want to talk about it, and they were pulled one way by the general electorate, and another by the principle involved, and a party base that was moving to the left.
There's a different quandary for today's Republican presidential contenders. You have a general electorate supporting change, and a Republican base committed to the rapidly eroding status quo. And consider that the first three Republican contests are in Iowa, relatively moderate New Hampshire, and extremely conservative South Carolina, which happens to be one of the states affected by yesterday's ruling. Ed Kilgore suggests that Iowa in particular is going to pose a challenge:
But the Iowa problem is real for Republicans: it became, because of a relatively early state judicial ruling allowing same-sex marriage, Ground Zero for conservative resistance to marriage equality. As recently as two years ago, I attended an Iowa political event, along with four or five former (and possibly future) presidential candidates, that was heavily focused on removing the judges responsible. I don't think the majordomo of that event, Bob Vander Plaats (often called a "kingmaker" thanks to his timely support for the last two Iowa Caucus winners), is about to cave anytime soon. And so long as there is an opportunist or two in the presidential field who's frantic for right-wing support (I’m looking at you, Bobby Jindal!), the odds of this issue being "off the table" in Iowa are very low.
Ed's last point is critical. If all the candidates had a tacit agreement not to make too much of it, the issue might not be that big a deal. But all it takes is one who won't go along to force all the other candidates to talk about it. And we already know that Ted Cruz, who will be bidding to be the choice of social conservatives, isn't going to let it go.
Now put that in the context of the long-running conflict within the GOP between the Tea Party base and the more practical-minded establishment. When the party bigwigs are saying, "We really need to talk about something else," the base is going to conclude that they are once again being betrayed by a bunch of elite Washington Republicans who are perfectly happy consorting with the sodomites who inhabit their metropolis of depravity.
Which, to a certain degree, is true. Many of those elite Washington Republicans may still write columns in support of "traditional marriage," but they also regularly interact with gay people. They'll come around before long, which will only make the base angrier.
The 2016 Republican primary was already shaping up to be a hugely entertaining bloodbath. This only makes it more exciting.