Even in the wake of a tremendous shift in public opinion and legal rights for same-sex marriage, I wager that most Americans would still probably accept a presidential candidate who opposes same-sex marriage. After all, for all but one election in our history, we've done just that.
What Americans will no longer accept is a presidential candidate who is prepared to do anything about that belief.
Ever since Friday's landmark Supreme Court ruling giving gay couples in all 50 states the right to marry, we've heard Republican presidential candidates tripping over each other in an effort to proclaim the advent of the end of the world. (Mike Huckabee: "I will not acquiesce to an imperial court." Bobby Jindal: "Let's just get rid of the court." And so on.) Mere resignation — "This is settled policy, and we have to move on" — is to religious conservatives a wholly unacceptable answer to the Supreme Court's ruling. And why should it be otherwise?
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Abortion, gender, and sexual taboos provide the most powerful weapons of shame in these moralists' arsenal. They want a presidential candidate who will fight, whether it be to propose a constitutional amendment forcing Supreme Court justices to retire after set terms (an unclear solution to the problem at hand) or simply promising to ignore the letter of the law. But there's nothing in the Constitution that privileges an expansive interpretation of the First Amendment, one that allows people to actively discriminate against a class of people when the Supreme Court has said that they cannot do so. Following the letter of the law would neuter activism. There's nothing left to be done.
So the default response: Candidates whine. That's really all it is. Adolescent petulance from adults. Jiggery-pokery from people who aren't really victims, dressed up in those tautological American political tropes like "let the people decide" or "unelected judges can't decide social questions."
The rules of the schoolyard have changed, but you're not going to share the sandbox because you just won't, because the rules as you know them are the only ones that matter.
But here's the thing: Republicans who work in Washington tend to support gay rights, as do most of the party's major donors. This moderate consultant class creates ads for candidates who don't support gay rights, or for candidates who secretly do but can't make that admission in public. A party has set itself up to fail when its consultants are selling crap they wouldn't buy themselves.
Each election cycle, a coterie of GOP strategists cling to the same fantasy about the electorate: that a hidden majority of conservatives will finally rise up in anger and defeat the advance of liberalism. (Democrats have the same rather fantastical belief in the power of populism to defeat the advance of corporatism.)
For some reason, though, politics doesn't work like that, especially when the majority seems to be set against any revanchism, as is the case now on gay rights and a number of other social issues. Liberals might overreach, but they'll overreach in a new area. The gay question is settled.
The apocalyptic rhetoric from Republicans is as potentially toxic to the party as nativism on immigration was. There are not enough people who are ready to hear a Republican presidential candidate sound the trumpets of the impending rapture and then proceed to vote for him or her.
Pete Wehner, a savvy GOP thinker, puts it this way: "Our nominee can't have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental... Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore."
Republicans hate to be told that, just as Democrats hate to hear that populism just doesn't seem to work.
But what's generally true is generally true. As Wehner says, "like it or not."
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