For Democratic presidential candidates, today’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is unqualified great news – Hillary Clinton and her rivals can celebrate without reservation, knowing that their party’s base sees today as a breakthrough for American civil rights.
For Republicans, it’s just a little more complicated. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin had a good piece on this today.
Republican presidential hopefuls responded to the Supreme Court’s historic same-sex marriage decision Friday with a mix of tepid disapproval and fiery condemnation, reflecting the party’s deep unease with an issue where public opinion tilted decisively toward equality well before the law had caught up.Consider Jeb Bush’s measure tone, for example. “I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision,” the Florida Republican said in a statement. “I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments.”
It’s not exactly Scalia-esque.
And it’s easy to understand why. On the one hand, GOP presidential candidates realize that much of their party’s right-wing base – including the religious right movement, which is powerful in early nominating states like Iowa – sees today’s decision as a genuine travesty. On the other hand, the American mainstream has already embraced marriage equality, and Republicans who plan to compete nationally have to be careful about alienating a general-election audience.
It’s a dynamic that leads to some caution. Literally every GOP candidate criticized the high court’s decision, and nearly everyone in the field stressed “religious” liberty, which must have done well in focus groups.
But from there, two camps emerged, divided by strategies over what happens next.
Lindsey Graham, for example, criticized the ruling but said he “will respect” the decision. Chris Christie endorsed Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent, but said he has no choice but to “support the law of the land.”
Marco Rubio, arguably the most far-right candidate in the GOP’s top tier, also said, “While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law.”
There was, however, another contingent that stressed a very different approach.
Highlighting a key policy division between the candidates in their response, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for a constitutional amendment to allow states to determine marriage laws themselves.“I believe this Supreme Court decision is a grave mistake,” he said in a statement. “Five unelected judges have taken it upon themselves to redefine the institution of marriage, an institution that the author of this decision acknowledges ‘has been with us for millennia.’”
The Wisconsin governor was one of only a few presidential hopefuls to explicitly endorse changing the U.S. Constitution. Walker called the move “the only alternative left.” (Left unsaid: another alternative is simply allowing loving couples to enjoy equal marriage rights.)
Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee also, predictably, expressed support for a constitutional amendment.
Stepping back and considering the larger context, The New Republic’s Brian Beutler makes a compelling case that Republicans should actually be “grateful” for today’s ruling.
Ending the same-sex marriage debate is the biggest favor the Court has done for the American right in decades. This issue is a year or two away from being poison to the Republican Party, and thus to the broader political aims of the conservative movement. Unlike just about any other issue position, opposition to same sex marriage will become a heuristic younger people use to determine that a politician isn’t worth listening to. Absent this ruling, the party’s base was going to trap them there forever.
Some on the right were apparently annoyed yesterday when I argued that Republicans benefited by losing the King v. Burwell health care case. It’s not altogether clear why conservatives disagreed with me – GOP lawmakers weren’t prepared for a “win.”
The same is true on marriage rights. Had Republicans won today, marriage equality would remain a front-burner issue for the foreseeable future, keeping GOP candidates on the wrong side of public opinion and further alienating young voters who’ve long seen the Republican position as ridiculous.
The party’s candidates can make things worse for themselves by picking a pointless fight over amending the Constitution, but the faster the issue fades away, the better it will be for the GOP.