How Will Republicans React to Gay Marriage Decision?

04/27/2015 08:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on a marriage equality case tomorrow. At this point, it almost seems anticlimactic. Either the Supreme Court will rule that gay marriage is a constitutional right everywhere in America, or they'll try to punt and say that all states have to recognize all marriages from other states, but don't have to perform their own gay marriages if they don't want to. Either way, gay marriage will become a reality in some awfully conservative states (whether couples have to take a vacation to another state to achieve it or not). The only question now is whether marriage equality will achieve a final and total victory, or just a partial victory. Either way, losing the progress that has already been made seems almost inconceivable at this point.

Perhaps that's too optimistic a read on the situation. We'll see what gets said tomorrow. In June, we'll see what the justices decide. Fair enough. But it's not too early to speculate about the shockwaves this is going to create in the Republican Party. Because as the recent state-level skirmishes have shown, the business community is now diametrically opposed to the Republican Party -- something that doesn't happen every day.

Big businesses were instrumental in getting Republicans in both Indiana and Arkansas to back off from passing new laws which would have codified discrimination against gay people. "That's bad for business," was the response from the giant corporations who do business in these two states. The lawmakers listened.

The Supreme Court decision, when it happens later this year, is quite likely going to set off an argument within the Republican Party -- or, at the very least, that subset of the party who are running for president. Already there have been a few Republican candidates courting the religious right vote by denouncing gay marriage in the strongest possible terms. Look for their voices to get even louder after the court rules. But also keep an eye on who doesn't strongly object to the ruling, because they'll be the ones keeping their own eyes on the future.

Republicans have lost this argument, to be blunt. Acceptance of gay marriage is now the solid majority position in the public at large, and it continues to grow. A few short years ago the public was somewhere around 40 percent for and 60 percent against marriage equality. Now those numbers are reversed, meaning 20 percent of the public has evolved on the issue in a very short time. The issue is a "deal-breaker" for many young voters, meaning even if they agreed with almost everything else a Republican candidate was for, they'd still vote against any candidate stridently against gay marriage.

The youth of America is strongly pro-equality. The business community has also largely evolved, and are also strongly pro-equality. This leaves only the evangelical base voters in the Republican Party who still refuse to alter their views. Pandering to the religious right is almost required for a Republican presidential candidate, but this year it's going to get a lot more costly for Republicans to do so among the rest of the electorate.

There may even be a fight when the official party platform document is put together for the Republican National Convention next year. Anti-marriage equality language in the platform may actually be removed, but not without a very vocal struggle within the party.

Republicans' biggest problem is that they're going to have severely limited options in what they can even propose to (as they put it) "defend traditional marriage" after the court rules. If the United States Supreme Court rules that marriage is a civil right guaranteed by the Constitution to all, gay and straight alike, then that means that no law can even be passed to change things. Any law which attempted to do so, whether state or federal, would immediately be struck down as unconstitutional. Of course, this is assuming the ruling is a sweeping victory for marriage equality. If this turns out to be the case, then only one route is even possible to change the ruling: amending the Constitution. Ted Cruz, jumping the gun, has already introduced an amendment in the Senate to do so. It's a lost cause, though. The bar is so high for constitutional amendments, and public opinion is so overwhelmingly against the idea that it won't get very far at all. Cruz likely knows this, but does not care since he's always been more interested in getting attention than actually changing any laws.

If the court punts, it'll be a different story. Every state will have to accept gay married people from other states, but the state-level fights over the issue will continue, even in some states where gay people are getting married today. It's pretty hard to imagine the court would take this route, because of the massive confusion which would follow (and because it directly contradicts what the court ruled in the Proposition 8 case). But if they did so, Republican presidential candidates would be in the thick of the fray at the state level.

Right now, the tricky question Republican candidates are getting asked is whether they'd personally attend a gay wedding if someone close to them invited them. But the questions are going to get more direct, once the court rules. If marriage equality does win big in the decision, Republicans will have a golden opportunity to jettison the issue entirely. "Well, the court ruled, there's nothing more that we can do," can be paired with, "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I disagree with the court's decision." Once that answer is given, the candidate can pivot to talking about something else.

The smart Republicans will probably take this route. They fought a massive, decades-long war on a social issue, they racked up all kinds of impressive victories along the way (something like 39 states had "defense of marriage" laws on the books, not that long ago), but now the country has rejected their position and has moved on to a completely different viewpoint. Republicans have been losing on the issue for the past three years, and they're about to lose the ultimate battle. The social warriors on the forefront of this fight will likely try to remain somehow relevant to the Republican Party, but even this will ultimately be a losing proposition. As more and more Republican candidates realize that being against gay marriage is now going to hurt them with the electorate much more than it used to help them, the issue will fade from their talking points altogether.

This won't happen overnight, of course. Social warriors are fervent, and they believe they are fighting on the right and moral side of the issue. It's not merely some political issue for them, it's a religious one. Which means some will go on fighting, as fervent as ever.

Nobody can tell what the future will bring, but there are two basic possibilities: Loving v. Virginia and Roe v. Wade. Who today would dare stand up in public and advocate that interracial marriage is against God's will and should be legally banned? The position is now considered downright indefensible by the vast majority of Americans. But it wasn't always that way. When Loving was decided, something like 70 percent of the public were for miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage. But who fights that battle today?

However, Roe v. Wade didn't quietly fade away in the same fashion. Even today the issue is so potent that our new Attorney General's vote in the Senate was held up for months while abortion legislation was fought over. Hundreds of new abortion-restricting laws have been passed just in the past few years alone. And it's been over 40 years since Roe v. Wade was decided. So while it'd be comforting to predict that Republicans will just throw in the towel on marriage equality and get over it, this might not happen any time soon.

Republicans might have to lose not just a few presidential elections but some significant statewide races as well (a few Senate seats or governors' offices, in other words) before they truly understand how fast the public's attitudes are changing on marriage equality. There are already voices within the party (mostly politicians with gay children and other relatives) who are urging Republicans to chart a new course on the issue. Their numbers, so far, are pretty small, and their voices aren't all that loud in Republican circles. But they may soon be joined by a whole lot of Republican politicians who just want to put the entire issue behind them. They'll be able to do so quite soon by pinning all the blame on the Supreme Court. Businesses -- a big funder of the Republican Party in general -- are already urging the party to move on. Their donations (and the threat of losing them) may convince a whole lot of Republicans that it's just not worth the effort any more to fight this particular battle.

However, as mentioned previously, this is a religious issue for many in the Republican Party -- both voters and politicians. Religious issues are the hardest to change opinions on, for obvious reasons. Religions aren't generally known for adapting their tenets to the popular will, to put it mildly. Evangelical voters are going to boost at least one Republican presidential candidate into the frontrunner ranks at some point during the campaign, if it's anything like the last one. Count on that candidate (whether it turns out to be Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, or someone else) to make a whole lot of noise about gay marriage, in an effort to force all the other Republicans to take the extremist position. So even if the rest of the party is willing to move on from an issue they ultimately lost on, they won't be able to totally ignore it in 2016. Maybe by 2020 or 2024, but even that's not guaranteed.


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