Political Hay

Unintended Consequences

Why marriage is a winning issue for the GOP.

By 9.3.10

It was inevitable. The moment former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman announced his homosexuality publicly, a flurry of journalists eagerly penned the obituary of the Republican Party's stance on traditional marriage. Again.

It's happened multiple times since social conservatives responded to activist judges in Massachusetts six years ago by propelling George W. Bush to a second term. Democrats' electoral rampage in 2006 was a repudiation of the GOP's anti-homosexual marriage agenda, they said. Ditto 2008, when Barack Obama -- who could be called the first gay president, like Bill Clinton was the first black president -- coasted to victory.

But liberals' celebration was tinged with angst. In 2006, many of the candidates who gave Democrats the majority trended conservative on the marriage issue. And in 2008, California might have voted for Obama over John McCain by a landslide, but 52 percent of voters backed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. That wasn't supposed to happen.

Now, in 2010, the frustration continues. Obama's goal of reversing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving openly has fallen on hard times. Complainers in the netroots notwithstanding, Obama hasn't changed his mind on gay nuptials, either. He supports civil unions but not marriage redefinition.

So, when your own guys aren't helping much, what else to do than falsely portray a seismic shift on the issue in your opponent's party? The Washington Post informs us that older Americans and social conservatives are evolving to support homosexual marriage. Read between the lines: the issue is an albatross around the neck of a GOP trying to refocus on economic issues.

Judging by the tenor of media coverage, you'd think traditional marriage was a failing issue for the GOP. But it's not. To date, 30 states have adopted marriage amendments, including several deep blue states. Those campaigns often have aided moderate Republicans by turning out a base that otherwise would have stayed home.

Can the GOP point to comparable victories on immigration, tax policy, or gun rights? No. Yet marriage is fast becoming the pariah to top party bosses. Blue-blooded country club Republicans aren't comfortable talking about God, morality, and tradition. Can we get back to railing against illegal immigrants, please?

That's not to say political shifts aren't happening. During the past decade, public acceptance of same-sex marriage has tilted slightly to the left, and polls show that young voters tend to favor it.

But neither development is significant or shocking. Polling shows a leftward tilt on several of the GOP's pet issues. It's unfair to portray marriage as an outlier. And the fact that young people are liberal, a systemic trait of young people, is hardly a news flash.

Politics aside, the reasons for conservatives and Republicans to continue standing for traditional marriage are legion. Glenn Beck doesn't get it when he claims freedom-loving Americans have "bigger fish to fry" than traditional marriage and abortion.

"You can argue about abortion or gay marriage or whatever all you want, the country is burning down," Beck said in early August.

That sentiment fails to recognize the inseparable connection between America's social and economic ills -- as if the fiscal sphere were solely responsible for the decline of America. It's not. The fall of the traditional family has long been linked to economic instability, the rise of the welfare state, and an electorate that doesn't understand, nor want to defend, freedom, liberty, and tradition.

There's also a marked distinction between the public issue of same-sex marriage and the private issue of protecting the rights of homosexuals as citizens. Americans should be protected under the law regardless of sexual orientation. But that's a far cry from re-defining civil marriage to include relationships that nature defines as untenable and God as immoral.

Economic concerns are, understandably, at the forefront of voters' minds this fall. But marriage continues to be a winning issue with voters. If GOP bosses continue down the road that leads to total abandonment of this principle, they'll fast discover unintended consequences at the ballot box.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.