Tricky is­sue for GOP 2016 hope­fuls

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By David Lauter and Mark Z. Barabak david. lauter@ latimes. com mark. barabak @ latimes. com

WASHINGTON — Within min­utes of the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion declar­ing a con­sti­tu­tional right for same- sex cou­ples to marry, Pres­i­dent Obama joined the cel­e­bra­tion, call­ing one of the gay plain­tiffs to con­grat­u­late him on live tele­vi­sion, then go­ing to the Rose Gar­den to hail Fri­day’s rul­ing as a mo­ment when “slow, steady ef­fort is re­warded with jus­tice that ar­rives like a thun­der­bolt.”

Al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, one of the lead­ing Repub­li­cans in the race to suc­ceed Obama, de­nounced the de­ci­sion as a “grave mis­take” and called for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to re­verse it. Another GOP hope­ful, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said the high court had “crossed from the realm of ac­tivism into the arena of oli­garchy,” and called for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to al­low vot­ers to re­move Supreme Court jus­tices from of­fice.

By con­trast, for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also seek­ing the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, stepped softly, say­ing only that he thought “the Supreme Court should have al­lowed the states to make this de­ci­sion.” GOP can­di­date Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida said: “While I dis­agree with this de­ci­sion, we live in a re­pub­lic and must abide by the law.”

The widely dif­fer­ent ap­proaches high­lighted how gay rights — same- sex mar­riage, in par­tic­u­lar — con­tinue to di­vide and shape Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Repub­li­cans run­ning for pres­i­dent face a choice in re­spond­ing to the court’s rul­ing. They could try to use the strong emo­tions same- sex mar­riages evoke as a way to mo­bi­lize con­ser­va­tive vot­ers in pri­maries, but po­ten­tially at the cost of un­der­min­ing their cam­paigns in next year’s gen­eral elec­tion. Or they could seize on the fi­nal- ity of a Supreme Court rul­ing as a way of avoid­ing an is­sue on which their party is out of step with the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers, but at the risk of alien­at­ing con­ser­va­tives who see the court de­ci­sion as a vi­o­la­tion of deeply held re­li­gious prin­ci­ples.

How they choose to nav­i­gate the is­sue will help de­ter­mine whether the vast ma­jor­ity of the coun­try quickly ac­cepts the court’s rul­ing, as hap­pened with the de­ci­sion to wipe out laws against in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage nearly half a cen­tury ago, or whether it will re­main di­vi­sive for years to come.

As re­cently as a decade ago, Repub­li­cans were able to use gay rights to drive a wedge be­tween Democrats and swing vot­ers. But the rapid shift in public opin­ion — one of the swiftest changes on a ma­jor is­sue that poll­sters have recorded — has re­shaped the po­lit­i­cal land­scape to the detri­ment of the GOP.

To­day, as many sur­veys have shown, a grow­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans fa­vor al- low­ing same- sex cou­ples to legally marry. Cur­rently, about 3 in 5 Amer­i­cans take that po­si­tion, up from fewer than half just five years ago.

Those same sur­veys also show that the vot­ers who care most about the is­sue tend to be those strongly op­posed to the change. Among self- de­scribed con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans, a group adamantly against same- sex mar­riage, 40% said in a poll last month by the non­par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter that they view the is­sue as “very im­por­tant.”

As a re­sult, Repub­li­cans seek­ing the pres­i­dency f ind them­selves pulled be­tween a de­sire to ap­peal to the older, con­ser­va­tive vot­ers who dom­i­nate GOP pri­maries in many states and the views of the larger elec­torate, par­tic­u­larly younger Amer­i­cans, who re­gard mar­riage equal­ity as an im­por­tant civil right.

Democrats moved quickly to heighten that ten­sion and re­in­force their sup­port among back­ers of gay rights. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, for ex­am­ple, is­sued a state­ment prais­ing the court’s de­ci­sion and call­ing for the coun­try to go fur­ther and out­law em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion against gays and les­bians. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced that the White House would be lighted up Fri­day night with a rain­bow dis­play, a sym­bol of the gay rights move­ment.

Repub­li­can re­ac­tions, by con­trast, dis­played a sharp split, not on the mer­its of the de­ci­sion, which all the party’s lead­ing can­di­dates op­posed, but in how to re­spond to it.

Walker, Cruz, for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal and other can­di­dates on the party’s right are all seek­ing to con­sol­i­date sup­port among con­ser­va­tive vot­ers. That gives them a strong in­cen­tive to push is­sues such as same- sex mar­riage to the fore­front, and they moved to do so in the hours af­ter the rul­ing.

While Walker backed amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion to over­turn the court’s deci- sion, oth­ers pledged sup­port for in­di­vid­u­als — busi­ness own­ers, for ex­am­ple — who feel their re­li­gious be­liefs would be vi­o­lated if they were to par­tic­i­pate in a same- sex wed­ding. Huck­abee warned against “sur­ren­der” to the court’s de­cree, but did not say what form of re­sis­tance he ad­vo­cated.

By con­trast, pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls in­clud­ing Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who seek sup­port from more mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans, sought to down­play the is­sue.

“This is some­thing that should be de­cided by the peo­ple of each state and not im­posed upon them by a group of lawyers sit­ting in black robes at the U. S. Supreme Court,” Christie said. “That be­ing said, those f ive lawyers get to im­pose it un­der our sys­tem, and so our job is go­ing to be to sup­port the law of the land.”

Dan Sch­nur, a vet­eran Repub­li­can strate­gist who now di­rects the Jesse Unruh In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics at USC, sug­gested that “you can tell a lot about the can­di­dates for pres­i­dent by the way they re­acted to to­day’s de­ci­sion.”

“Those who think the way to win a gen­eral elec­tion is by per­suad­ing un­de­cided vot­ers are say­ing, ‘ Let’s move on.’ Those who think the way you win a gen­eral elec­tion is by mo­ti­vat­ing the base say, ‘ This means war,’ ” Sch­nur said. “The Bushes and the Ru­bios will qui­etly dis­agree with the de­ci­sion and then try to move on. The Walk­ers and the Jin­dals will try to use this to light a f ire un­der the Repub­li­can base.”

Curt An­der­son, the chief strate­gist for Jin­dal’s cam­paign, said Repub­li­cans can ben­e­fit by stand­ing up for their prin­ci­ples even if the polls are against them.

“Po­lit­i­cal par­ties can al­ways say, ‘ Oh well, some of our prin­ci­ples have fallen out of fa­vor, so let’s jet­ti­son them,’ ” An­der­son said. “I don’t think that’s gen­er­ally a bright idea.”

Vot­ers will stand with a can­di­date de­spite dis­agree- ment on a spe­cific is­sue if they see him or her as some­one who is not “mean- spir­ited,” An­der­son said.

But the idea that the U. S. has a la­tent con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity just wait­ing to be mo­bi­lized by the right can­di­date is not a view widely shared among Repub­li­can strate­gists.

“The Repub­li­can Party has lost the pop­u­lar vote in f ive of the last six elec­tions not be­cause con­ser­va­tives haven’t turned out,” said Steve Sch­midt, who served as se­nior ad­vi­sor to John McCain’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2008 and has since be­come a vo­cal critic of the party’s right wing.

“The no­tion that there will be a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment” to end same­sex mar­riage is “delu­sional,” Sch­midt said.

Young peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar have come to re­gard same- sex mar­riage as the norm. Mov­ing past the is­sue could give Repub­li­cans a chance to fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion, the econ­omy and other is­sues that might prove more fruit­ful, said John Della Volpe, a Har­vard poll­ster and ex­pert on the youth vote.

“That’s help­ful to be­ing com­pet­i­tive in a gen­eral elec­tion,” he said.

Ul­ti­mately, said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Stu­art Rothen­berg, “Repub­li­cans don’t want the 2016 elec­tion to be a ref­er­en­dum on same- sex mar­riage.”

“It may suit [ Rick] San­to­rum and Huck­abee and Jin­dal from a po­lit­i­cal point of view to rally so­cial con­ser­va­tives and the evan­gel­i­cal base and make them an­gry and make them frus­trated and try to emerge as the so­cial- con­ser­va­tive al­ter­na­tive,” Rothen­berg said.

But, he added, “to the ex­tent to which it be­comes an emo­tional is­sue, an an­gry is­sue, an is­sue that makes Repub­li­cans look less tol­er­ant, less in­clu­sive, less wel­com­ing — that’s a prob­lem.”

Getty I mages

AT THE SUPREME COURT, Jen­nifer Mar­shall, left, and Sum­mer In­gram, right, protest the rul­ing, which put Repub­li­can can­di­dates’ strate­gies on dis­play.

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