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On marriage debate, GOP candidates forget what year it is

On marriage equality, what's the real difference between the Republicans' 2016 field and the 2012 and 2008 cycles? There is no real difference.
Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen.Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit on April 18, 2015, in Nashua, N.H.
Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen.Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit on April 18, 2015, in Nashua, N.H.
The presidential campaign is still taking shape, but we've already seen candidates peppered with some unexpected litmus-test questions on issues like evolutionary biology and vaccinations. But last week's inquiry -- "Would you attend a same-sex wedding?" -- was perhaps the most unexpected yet.
The responses told us a little something about the White House hopefuls' tone, but the question itself was telling -- the debate over marriage equality has advanced so far that Republicans are getting pressed, not on constitutional amendments, but on wedding invitations.
Jon Stewart had a good segment on this the other day, noting, "The national shift makes it a lot less acceptable now for Republican candidates to say the kinds of things that they were saying in the last campaign cycle.... Republicans can no longer dismiss gay marriage out of hand. They must engage the question."
But as encouraging as that shift is, what's especially striking is the degree to which the 2016 GOP field hasn't progressed -- candidates appear stuck in the same old debate, repeating stale, discredited arguments while the nation passes them by. Politico reported on an Iowa event on Saturday featuring nine Republican presidential hopefuls, each trying to curry favor with the 1,000 evangelicals who gathered at the Point of Grace Church in Waukee.

[A] procession of presidential candidates expressed support for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to re-ban gay marriage if the Supreme Court recognizes a right to such unions. [...] The nuanced answers from many Republican candidates in recent months took a backburner Saturday night, as several of the candidates tried to outdo one another on who could speak out most strongly against a right to gay marriage.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), echoing Rick Santorum's 2011 rhetoric nearly word for word, told the right-wing attendees, "The institution of marriage as between one man and one woman existed even before our laws existed." Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), repeating Rick Scott's 2011 talking points, said an anti-gay constitutional amendment would be "reasonable."
Perhaps my favorite moment came when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemned Democrats' "devotion to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states."
I'm certainly not in a position to speak for Democrats, but I'm pretty sure they want marriage to be voluntary, not mandatory.
There were all kinds of related arguments from the usual suspects, with one candidate after another eagerly trying to convince the Iowa social conservatives that they were the right's true champion.
Even former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who skipped the gathering, dispatched his liaison to the religious right, Jordan Sekelow, to reassure the activists, "Gov. Bush supports traditional marriage.... He was the first of the potential candidates to say, 'I stand with Gov. Pence in doing the right thing'" in Indiana.
With the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on the issue of marriage equality tomorrow, and polls showing the public clearly backing equal marriage rights for all, many Republican strategists would just as soon see national candidates give up the pointless fight. As the Politico piece added, "Many GOP elites, in the donor and operative class, want to move beyond gay marriage. They think it's a losing issue for the party in the long-term and makes outreach to younger voters more difficult."
But as Saturday's event in Iowa made clear, that's just not going to happen. Republican candidates -- including those who claim to bring a fresh perspective that can win over young people -- remain unswervingly committed to the same rhetoric, policy positions, and postures as GOP candidates from 2012 and 2008. The only real difference on marriage equality between Rubio in this cycle and Santorum and Mike Huckabee in the last cycle? Slightly better delivery.
The nation has moved on. GOP presidential hopefuls will not. The right is left with a wedge issue whose blade has grown dull.
For more on the event in Waukee, check out Jane C. Timm's msnbc report.