Could Jeb Bush wind up supporting gay marriage?
If the former Florida governor does, he will be the first major Republican presidential candidate to do so (Jon Huntsman waited until after his 2012 campaign was over to declare, "Marriage equality is a conservative cause").
The speculation was started by BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins, who reported on Bush's gay-friendly campaign team:
When Bush officially launches his presidential bid later this year, he will likely do so with a campaign manager who has urged the Republican Party to adopt a pro-gay agenda; a chief strategist who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing for marriage equality in California; a longtime adviser who once encouraged her minister to stick to his guns in preaching equality for same-sex couples; and a communications director who is openly gay. [BuzzFeed]
Gay marriage, like immigration, is an issue where much of the Republican donor class would like the party to disregard the base. "Frankly," likely Bush campaign chief David Kochel said on an Iowa television program, "the culture wars are kind of over, and Republicans largely lost." Many Republican consultants feel the same way.
In addition to hiring people who think along these lines, several people told BuzzFeed that Bush's "thinking appears to have evolved" on gay marriage, leaving him "supportive at best and agnostic at worst." If so, a Supreme Court decision serving as the Roe v. Wade of gay marriage could be an opportunity to announce the shift.
Not so fast.
If Bush was the unambiguous 2016 frontrunner, this would be easier. But despite his hiring and fundraising success, Bush may not even be the frontrunner at all.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is not only beating Bush in many polls, but doing so without fully consolidating conservatives. Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson all have significant pockets of support.
Republicans still oppose gay marriage by roughly the same margin the country as a whole did when even Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton concluded open support for same-sex nuptials was a net vote loser.
Social conservatives haven't really grappled with the extent of their loss on this issue, partly because the courts are moving faster than voters and legislatures (though voters and legislatures are moving, too). Not all of them are ready to wave the white flag.
Endorsing gay marriage would make it difficult to win Iowa, even with Kochel on board, and would probably prevent Bush from emulating his brother's 2000 nomination strategy: combining establishment and evangelical support to prevent the emergence of a viable conservative alternative.
But with Walker and others already gaining traction, maybe Dubya's path to the nomination was never available for Jeb. Maybe he can use marriage to splinter conservatives.
The Republican to watch would be Mike Huckabee. He has threatened to bolt the party if it surrenders on gay marriage, and he is the Christian right candidate who is currently polling the best.
If Huckabee reacted harshly to Bush's backsliding and gained in the polls as a result, it could start a chain reaction among other candidates appealing to conservatives. Walker could have to talk about gay marriage more than he'd like, or face losing votes to Huckabee or someone like him.
This could especially complicate things for Paul. The Kentucky senator's base of younger and libertarian-leaning voters frequently support same-sex matrimony, but the evangelicals he needs to broaden his appeal generally don't. What would he do?
That's the best case scenario for Bush. The worst is if by staking out the most liberal position on gay marriage, he makes it easier for all the other candidates to be to his right without overcompensating on the issue. Combined with his stance on the tax hike pledge, immigration, and Common Core, Bush could find himself in Huntsman territory very quickly.
Republicans do need a gay marriage game-changer. Gay marriage is a legal reality in too many places to likely ever be reversed. You can repeal and replace ObamaCare, especially if voters like the replacement better. You either have gay marriage or you don't. (It's too late for civil unions.)
A Supreme Court decision could make even the GOP's move to a federalist position on marriage untenable, unless social conservatives are willing to accept support for a constitutional amendment that will never be ratified.
But social conservative concerns about religious liberty and how to uphold a strong marriage culture for the heterosexual majority will need to be addressed in some way.
Maybe Jeb Bush can represent a kinder, gentler social conservatism. More likely, social conservatives will respond to any such attempt with Nancy Reagan's acerbic question about that Bush 41 catchphrase: "Kinder and gentler than whom?"