November 20, 2013

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: On Same-Sex Marriage, Republicans Should Embrace Flexibility

Print More


Mary Cheney’s statement that her sister Liz Cheney, who is running for Senate in Wyoming, is “dead wrong on the issue of marriage” brought to the forefront a key divide within today’s Republican Party.  Each side argues that its position most comports with Republican ideals.

Supporters of same-sex marriage often base their argument on the Republican principle of individual freedom from collective control.  What could be a greater example of big-government tyranny, they reason, than denying someone the ability to marry the person they love?  Opponents, on the other hand, argue that Republicans should stand on the side of tradition, especially when what is at issue is the strength of the near-universal and critical institution of the family.  This stance is reminiscent of William F. Buckley’s famous characterization of a conservative as someone who “stands athwart history, yelling stop.”  Other Republicans contend that this debate over principle should not matter at all.  Whether you like same-sex marriage or not, they argue, being widely perceived as anachronistic will not win you elections; the Republican Party must change its position as soon as possible.

This last group of Republicans has a point.  There is no question that support for same-sex marriage has risen dramatically — support has more than doubled since 1996 among the public — and supporters of solely traditional marriage now find themselves in the minority. Among younger voters, support for “marriage equality” exceeds 70 percent in most polls, making same-sex marriage seem like a nationwide inevitability.  Yet, in a world where most Republican voters still oppose same-sex marriage, a Party declaration in favor of same-sex marriage at a time when there is already too much talk of forming a more conservative third party would almost certainly be unwise.  If a sudden change of position is not the answer, how should the Party proceed?

The first and most important thing to do is to welcome a diversity of opinions on this issue.  “Purity tests” of the sort floated by some Republicans, which often include a requirement to oppose same-sex marriage, alienate not just those within the party that have a reasonable disagreement on the issue, but potential Republican voters who will not want to be associated with a party that has such a rigid stance on a deeply personal issue.  One of the strengths of the Democratic Party over the years has been its ability to bring together those on different sides of debates like that on gun control, enabling it to maintain at least some support in “red states.”  If Republicans are to be competitive in socially liberal places like New England, we must be willing to entertain candidates who deviate from the party line on some subjects.  We should try to attract all voters that agree with us on most of the issues — or at least the issues that matter most to them — rather than unfairly demand agreement on everything.

The second thing to do is to be the party of civility.  There are few debates in America today that inspire as much vitriol as the debate over same-sex marriage. All too often, each side accuses the other of being motivated by animus. Marriage traditionalists are told that they harbor a hatred of homosexuals akin to the hatred displayed by the whites who once defended bans on interracial marriage.  Supporters of same-sex marriage are told that they seek to destroy, not strengthen, the institution of marriage as part of a war on religion aimed at offending those who see the opposite-sex definition of marriage as sacred.  Our Party must understand that the debate over marriage is not about whether we should tolerate and embrace or hate homosexuals, but rather, it is about what marriage is and what social goods we seek to foster through state recognition of it.  While the Party can certainly stand on one side of that debate, it ought not do so with a flagrant disrespect and misunderstanding of those with the opposite perspective, as Democrats increasingly do.

Finally, Republicans need not panic over the major shift there has been in public opinion about same-sex marriage.  Democrats may well be right that marriage traditionalists are on “the wrong side of history” (who knows?).  But it is not as if some tidal wave of progress will sweep our party into oblivion in the near future absent a change in the Party’s platform.  Conservative candidates and their parties across the globe have won elections by wide margins despite disagreement with their electorates on same-sex marriage, from Chris Christie in New Jersey, to Tony Abbott in Australia.  Republicans should focus on presenting sound conservative principles on the issues that people most care most about, like the economy, taxation and Obamacare, explaining how Republican policy would make their lives better at a time when far too many Americans are struggling to get by.  It should be our positions on these issues, not the highly personal and divisive social issues that so often divide parties, that play the primary role in defining who we are as Republicans.