Threatened With Extinction, Conservative Opinions on Marriage Begin to Evolve
There's no question that 2013 was a landmark year for LGBT rights in America. Along with the two Supreme Court decisions that legalized marriage on the federal level, there was a development that, in the long view of history, may prove to have been just as historic: capitulation by conservative forces that have fought just as long and at least as hard against marriage equality as gay Americans and their allies have fought for it.
The year began with "A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage," a tract from the Institute from the American Values Institute. Issued in January, it followed a much-discussed op-ed in the New York Times in which the New York conservative think tank's head, David Blankenhorn, announced that he was walking away from the battle against same-sex marriage.
At various stages, Blankenhorn had been the star witness in the plaintiffs' defense of California's Proposition 8 before federal judges. So it came as a shock when he wrote, "Instead of fighting gay marriage, I'd like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same."
The "call" did just that, with 74 shining lights on the right that included John Podhoretz, editor of the influential magazine Commentary, signing on to the document. Marriage, they said, "is rapidly dividing along class lines, splitting the country that it used to unite."
The document signifies a profound shift in the national conversation among conservatives about marriage. Rather than a gay-straight divide, many cite statistics showing single-family households as disproportionately poor as proof that marriage is becoming the province of the well off.
They've come to the realization that, in a country where celebrities jet off to Vegas to get hitched in a drive-by chapel (and get divorced just as quickly) and where someone like Zsa Zsa Gabor can go through nine marriages, the threat to the institution of marriage is coming from within. Far from a threat, these conservatives argue, the passion that gay Americans have to get married, and the hard work they've been doing to be allowed to do so, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
As of this writing, the year is ending with a spat between sisters Mary and Liz Cheney. After Mary, who is raising two children with her wife, saw Liz disavow gay marriage on a Sunday news program, Mary went public to oppose her sister, who is locked in a battle to unseat a sitting GOP senator in Wyoming. The rift in the first family of American conservatives has been a fitting symbol for the larger battle for the hearts and minds of those on the right. (Their parents, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney, entered the fray the day after. Reported the New York Times: "Mr. Cheney and his wife appear to be siding with Liz, and said in the statement that it is possible to be loving toward a lesbian sister and her spouse while not embracing the idea of their marrying.")
AN INCONVENIENT INEVITABLITY
In March, National Review, the bible of American conservatives, published an article titled "Gay Marriage Gains Ground." The magazine a week before reported the findings of a prominent GOP pollster who called marriage equality "inevitable."
As if to underscore the point, the day before the article appeared, Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who has become a Tea Party hero, said on a Sunday talk show that younger conservatives are so accepting of gay marriage, the day is not far off when the issue will not be a factor in political races.
Walker was speaking for a growing coterie in the party who want to walk away from an issue that has become a loser for their side. "When I talk about things," he said, "I talk about the economic and fiscal crises in our state and our country. That’s what people want to resonate about. They don’t want to get focused on ’those issues’ " - specifically, same-sex marriage."
That same month, popular right-wing columnist Mona Charen wrote a concession in the National Review that concluded, "supporters of same-sex marriage have successfully framed their opponents as bigots."
The best argument Charen could give against marriage equality became her side’s Hail Mary pass: "Will it adversely affect any children in the home? ... Nor do we know whether purposely denying to children of same-sex couples a parent of each sex is damaging. ... It’s too early in the history of this experiment to know."
The only evidence the right can cite "definitively," however, is a study by Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas professor, He claims that children in same-sex homes are more prone to problems like depression, bad grades and criminal behavior. Except that the study, funded by a conservative think tank, has been widely disparaged among Regnerus’s fellow academics as fatally flawed.
The peer-reviewed journal that published the study has disavowed it, and Regnerus faced disciplinary action at U.T. Even though Regnerus himself has pretty much admitted that the study is bunkum, it continues to be Exhibit A in the ever-shrinking arsenal of marriage-equality opponents, most recently in a court case over Michigan’s ban.
As if to answer Charen’s questions, an academic in Australia released a study of a large number of same-sex families. The Australian study came to the opposite conclusion as Regnerus’: Same-sex couples’ kids actually are better adjusted and do better academically than those in families headed by a man and woman.
WITHOUT CHAOS, NOTHING EVOLVES
Even Tea Party Republicans like Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia who fought a futile battle all the way up to the Supreme Court to defend a sodomy law, are backing down on the marriage issue. Cuccinelli also supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But when the ultra-conservative Washington Times pressed him on the issue, he took a pass. His recent bid for governor failed in November.
Two of the Tea Party’s leading lights in the U.S. Senate, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, have gone on record opposing a federal constitutional amendment. Not only do they disagree with the GOP party platform, but so too did a report by the Republican National Committee.
Schizophrenia has taken over a party that’s trying to broaden its base while also retaining social conservatives. "There is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and rights of gays," reads a report published by the RNC in early 2013 in response to GOP losses in the 2012 election. "For many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be." Pressured by religious conservatives, the RNC once again reversed itself several months later.
Given such decidedly mixed signals, it’s not surprising that when a leading conservative, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (whose son is gay), came out for same-sex marriage, party leaders refused to comment. On the other hand, the spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee immediately congratulated Portman on his Facebook page, writing "It’s pretty difficult for me personally to disagree with any of this."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Meg Whitman, who both opposed gay marriage in their last campaigns, signed on to a pro-gay-marriage amicus brief to the Supreme Court. So did half a dozen senior advisors in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the party’s most important media strategists. These Republicans may be motivated by money as well as morals.
THE MOTHER’S MILK OF POLITICS
Tip O’Neill, speaker of the House of Representatives, may have been a Democrat, but his famous quip that "Money is the mother’s milk of politics" transcends party identity or ideology. The Koch brothers may still be the biggest donors to conservatives, but marriage is at best a sideline issue for them, something to be played if it will get votes.
More representative of super-wealthy GOP supporters is Paul Singer, a hedge-fund billionaire who continues to back conservative candidates while just as eagerly donating to state marriage initiatives. Singer and like-minded donors started the American Unity super PAC, whose sole mission is to encourage GOP candidates to back same-sex marriage.
Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chair, came out two years ago and has since become a Wall Street executive and big backer for change within the party he once headed. And New York City’s soon-to-be-former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who originally ran on the GOP ticket, has been using some of his personal fortune estimated at $17 billion to back state marriage initiatives and like-minded GOP candidates.
That the party is becoming ever more quiescent, if not permanently changing its stance, about same-sex marriage was evident when the Rhode Island State Senate in May voted for same-sex marriage. Whereas the five state senators in New York who crossed the aisle on the issue became a lightning rod for the right, there was nary a peep when all five Rhode Island GOP senators did the same.
GOP candidates in conservative states, however, continue to confront the dilemma of having to win nominations from their party before they can tailor their views to the general electorate. Until a new generation takes over, GOP primaries will continue to be dominated by social conservatives who still breathe fire when it comes to gay marriage.
"While the consultants may be ready and while younger people may be ready," one GOP strategist told Politico, "their bosses - the candidates - aren’t."
So far, Blankenhorn and newfound allies like Joseph Bottum, a prominent Catholic thinker who also switched sides this year, haven’t had much traction among the religious right. Over time, they may finally come to realize that, as Singer told the New York Times, "The institution of marriage is in very bad shape in this country, yet gay and lesbian couples want very much to be a part of it, to live as committed husbands and wives with their children in traditional family units.
"This should be what we want as conservatives," Singer said, "for people to cherish and respect this model and to want it for themselves."