In five years, will President Obama’s switch to support same-sex marriage on Wednesday look like a turning point in mainstream acceptance?
Or will it have the opposite effect — snuffing out the tiny but growing pro-marriage rights wing within the GOP and entrenching same-sex marriage as a partisan issue favored only by Democrats?
Although most Republicans remain opposed to same-sex marriage, a handful voted in favor of same-sex marriage rights in New York last year, and the GOP-led legislature in New Hampshire upheld the state’s same-sex marriage law earlier this year. The plain fact is that if same-sex marriage rights are to continue expanding, they’ll need to keep attracting Republican supporters.
But what happens to that contingent now? After all, there seems to be nothing that scares GOP office holders into changing their views as swiftly as Obama agreeing with them. Whether it’s health insurance mandates or cap-and-trade, reflexive partisan opposition to the president often seems to overrule those positions.
But that’s hardly Obama’s fault. It’s up to Republicans — hopefully including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown — to keep the party from doubling-down on same-sex marriage opposition merely because Obama’s now for it.
To its credit, the GOP leadership’s response to Obama’s announcement has been muted. Presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney reaffirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage, but acknowledged how "tender and sensitive" the topic was. Congressional Republican leaders have been busy trying to change the subject back to the economy.
At the same time, though, other voices within the GOP are clearly pushing to make same-sex marriage a defining issue in November. Wednesday night, within hours of the announcement, House Republicans staged a symbolic vote reaffirming the Defense of Marriage Act.
Many Republicans are sincerely opposed to same-sex marriage, and won’t be shifting their views. The danger is that, provoked by Obama’s stand, they will make it a partisan litmus test.
Backers of same-sex marriage hope that the movement will follow the path of interracial marriage to widespread, bipartisan acceptance. But the issue could just as easily turn into abortion instead — a culture-wars battleground that hasn’t faded almost 40 years after Roe v. Wade.
To prevent that, centrist Republicans need to speak up now. Brown was an opponent of the same-sex marriage law in Massachusetts, but has since declared that he considers it settled law without actually endorsing it. But if there were ever an ideal time for Brown to declare himself for same-sex marriage, this is it.