The Nation's Pulse

Don’t Divorce the Marriage Issue

Republican support for traditional marriage is hardly the reason for the GOP's problems.

By 5.13.09

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Perhaps goaded by the liberal theta waves now pulsating from Washington, same-sex marriage advocates have won an unprecedented number of victories in recent weeks.

The avalanche began in April when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a state law protecting the historical definition of marriage. Since then, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine have approved same-sex marriage through legislative act. The New Hampshire House approved similar legislation last week, although it's unclear whether Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, will sign it.

The flurry of triumphs for homosexual marriage supporters has, predictably, led to renewed calls from liberal Republicans to scuttle the party's stance on the issue.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, for instance, recently urged the GOP to scrub traditional marriage from its platform or face the political consequences. Steve Schmidt, a political advisor for John McCain's presidential bid last year, gave a similar prognosis. He said the issue is alienating Republicans' chances of capturing young voters and northeastern states.

Ignored in both Whitman and Schmidt's analysis are the 30 states that have already amended their constitutions to protect the traditional understanding of marriage. Although much ado has been made about the democratic approval of same-sex marriage in recent weeks, states with marriage amendments have put the issue to a direct vote of the people, with an average victory margin around 75 percent.

The wins haven't all been in conservative Sun Belt states, either. Voters in California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan — all states that broke for Obama in 2008 — have approved traditional marriage amendments.

In fact, aside from the anomaly of Iowa and California (both made possible by judicial fiat), the northeast is the only region of the country to see a successful push for same-sex marriage. The issue often fares better on the ballot in blue states than do GOP candidates. So why the push to wipe it from the party's agenda?

Liberal Republicans point to shifting polling data. During the last decade, they say, national surveys have shown a gradual erosion of support for traditional marriage, and that bodes ill for the party's future.

In some ways, that's an accurate assessment. In 2008, Gallup reported that 40 percent of Americans said homosexual marriage should be recognized as equal to traditional marriage, compared with one in four Americans in 1996. But the poll also showed that public support for same-sex marriage was higher in 2004 than it is today, and that support has fluctuated between 37 percent and 46 percent during the last four years.

Clearly, the nation isn't seeing a tsunami-level shift on the marriage issue, although polling shows a gradual shift toward the left. That's true for many positions advocated by the GOP, however. If the Republican Party forfeits its position on homosexual marriage in response to negative survey data, then it should toss most of its agenda, because current polling puts the GOP, across the board, in the toilet.

A better option is to remain true to the foundational principles of conservatism, of which traditional marriage and family are a critical plank. Conservatives can do a better job of nuancing the issue, but they should never forfeit the principle itself.

In addition, strict political pragmatists should consider that traditional marriage remains a strong winner at the state level, even in reliably blue states. California has twice approved protections for traditional marriage, the second time after the state Supreme Court ruled that defining marriage as traditionally understood is unconstitutional. The amendment garnered far more support than John McCain's paltry showing in the Big Enchilada.

The GOP needs to do some soul searching, no doubt. Part of that should be the acknowledgment that social conservatism in general, and marriage protection in particular, is not responsible for the party's fading fortunes.

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