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Conservatives' federalism copout
Sure, it sounds great to shruggingly say, "Leave it to the states." But the big issues of our time are worth fighting for
 
Matt K. Lewis
Matt K. Lewis

It wasn't that long ago that then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was fileted for advising that conservatives declare a "truce" on social issues. Now some prominent conservatives are offering the same advice. 

Are these Daniels-aping conservatives boldly announcing their decisions? No. They're couching them in the language of federalism. In other words, leave it to the states.

The latest and most significant example of this came at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Sen. Marco Rubio averred: "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot." (Emphasis mine.)

To the attentive ear, Rubio's comments were, as the DC Examiner's Philip Klein observed, "a major shift in the gay marriage debate."

This is a clearly a trend. Writing about Sen. Rand Paul's marriage position recently, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin observed, "[G]etting the federal government out of the marriage business, deferring to the states and allowing individuals to, as he says, enter into contracts with one another, can be the way out of the gay marriage thicket for the GOP, I would argue."

While some libertarians might hew to the states' rights position out of principle, as Rubin implies, it's also a convenient argument for any Republican who simply wants to avoid "the gay marriage thicket."  

Just as Democrats like Bill Clinton spent years saying, "Look, I'm personally pro-life, but..." Republicans would now get to say, "I'm personally in favor of traditional marriage, but..."

Of course, one man's smart strategic move is another man's abdication of responsibility — and yet another example of politicians kicking the can down the road. Republican politicians might think they get away with this act of prestidigitation, but what about all those social conservatives who have supported the GOP since the Reagan years — who remember that just a decade ago, a Republican president wanted a marriage amendment to the constitution? At what point will they figure this out?

Conservatives who believe in limited government rightfully respect the 10th Amendment. And it's fair to say the vast majority of things the federal government does could better (and more appropriately) be left to the states.

But as a society, we seem to have decided that big moral issues — the ones that fundamentally involve civil rights, equality, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — must eventually be grappled with at the national level. (To a certain extent, that debate was settled with bayonets when the North won the Civil War — and reaffirmed during the Civil Rights struggle.)

In effect, "leaving it to the states" is a tacit acknowledgement that gay marriage will become the law of the land — that it's a fait accompli the minute a couple married in Massachusetts moves to Mississippi. Except rather than having a national discussion about it — rather than wrestling to find some coherent conservative solution (whether it's  that marriage is a special institution that should be between one man and one woman, or to support civil unions, or to say that marriage is a bourgeois institution with salutary benefits for everyone, including gays) — Republican politicians would be evading the issue.

For some, that's a fine dénouement. In a sense, it's Burkean. A slow, evolutionary implementation taking place over the course of decades (the courts would eventually mandate that Mississippi recognize Massachusetts' marriage laws) would give society additional time to adapt to a changing world. That wouldn't be the worst outcome — certainly better than a Supreme Court decision mandating the legalization of gay marriage everywhere immediately. (Though ironically, a court decision might be better politically for the GOP.)

But whether you're for gay marriage or against it, let's not pretend that advocating a patchwork of competing and disparate marriage laws is a profile in courage.

After all, Republicans didn't lose Senate races because Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock botched the gay marriage issue. It was all about abortion.

The New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote wrote this weekend about respected author and AEI scholar Charles Murray's CPAC comments. "Unless the GOP drops what he called its 'litmus tests' for candidates on these divisive social issues, Murray warned that conservatives were likely to alienate a large swath of the voting public, including his children, who might otherwise be attracted to the Party," wrote Mayer.

If you think this is tantamount to trading one's values for votes, consider this (also from Mayer's piece):

Murray quoted his friend Karl Hess, a Goldwater speechwriter turned "charming anarchist," on the idea that abortions should be thought of as homicides — with the caveat that, "It's a murder — it's a homicide — but sometimes homicide is justified." Murray said that he'd long thought that Hess was too harsh, but now thought that his language was right. [New Yorker]

Justifiable homicide?

At the national level, the abortion issue was foisted on us in 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. In one fell swoop, the court — not conservatives — made abortion a national issue. As a reaction to this overreach, conservatives rallied in defense of the right to life. And pushing back meant stressing that this was the moral cause of our generation. The Republican Party quickly absorbed these activists into what became the Reagan coalition.

This involved crossing the Rubicon. "Let's return the abortion issue to the states," isn't exactly an inspiring rallying cry. "Abortion stops a beating heart" is much better. Assuming one believes that life begins at conception, and abortion is murder, then giving the states the right to legalize abortion isn't a morally defensible option. Try squaring that with federalism.

Many anti-abortion activists have adopted William Wilberforce, a British Parliamentarian who dedicated his life's work to ending the slave trade, as a hero and a model. They will not be content with a Republican Party that seeks anything less than abolition.

At a forum in Iowa recently, Mike Huckabee said the abortion issue "cannot be moved off our platform and if it is, then I'll meet you somewhere outside the tent and we'll build a new one."

Republican politicians who think they can focus solely on jobs and the economy, while passing the buck on social issues to the states, might well be in for a rude awakening.

 
Matt K. Lewis is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com, writes for The Daily Caller, and co-hosts The DMZ on Bloggingheads.tv. In 2012, the American Conservative Union honored Matt as  CPAC "Blogger of the Year." Matt lives in Alexandria, Va.

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