Last week, 80 Republican officeholders and former officeholders signed onto a brief that argued that same-sex marriage, once thought to be an unacceptable deviation from social norms, was actually a constitutional right.
Now, far from backing down, a group of grassroots leaders and consultants told TheBlaze that the issue is a moral and political winner, if the Republican party only has the wit to see it. As one such person put it, "we view it as the right thing to do and actually as something that is philosophically consistent in many of our views with our right-of-center philosophy."
This type of thinking is a long way from the GOP's past positions, and to some extent, its mere existence is a sign that not just the party, but the country, has shifted on the issue. Back in 2004, supporting gay marriage was a culture war wedge issue, and the idea of a Republican openly supporting it -- even in cases where they had personal reasons to do so -- would have been unheard of. Even Democrats were spooked by the issue to the point where President Obama had to pretend to oppose the idea the first time he ran for President in 2008, albeit in much less strident terms than Republicans.
Fast forward to 2012, and now, the tables are turned. Legalizing gay marriage, or at least ending Federal barriers to it, has the support of a majority of the population (and a majority of Republicans). Seventy percent of young voters favor the idea. Gay marriage is seen in some quarters as the natural successor to Civil Rights. As with so much, the landscape has shifted, and Republicans are arguably playing catch-up.
Enter the Respect for Marriage coalition, an unlikely bipartisan alliance that unites libertarian Republicans with a veritable who's who of gay rights groups. The group has already released ads both featuring and targeted at Republicans, featuring quotations from everyone from former Vice President Dick Cheney to former members of the military in their quest to once and for all normalize the issue of gay marriage.
To get a sense of the thinking behind this unusual partnership, TheBlaze reached out to Craig Stowell, the ex-Marine featured in one of the group's ads, and also to two of the operatives behind the campaign, to get a sense of why some Republicans are not only jumping ship from long-held orthodoxy, but actively trying to make that orthodoxy sink faster.
As with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who supports same-sex marriage at least in part because of his experience raising a gay daughter, Stowell's reasons for supporting gay marriage started with a personal connection. In Stowell's case, that connection was to his gay brother.
"He's somebody that I'd always known he was gay, and growing up, he would say certain things and I always felt like he was testing us," Stowell told TheBlaze. "So I went out of my way to let him know that it was wrong to say things about gay people, to let him know that when he was ready, we were gonna love him and we were gonna support him."
It was in his mission to support that brother that Stowell ended up cutting his teeth in the politics of gay marriage. "In 2009, New Hampshire passed same sex marriage, and in 2011, a Republican by the name of David Bates proposed repeal of the bill," Stowell said. "For me, when that repeal bill came up, it was one of those moments where I said, 'Y'know, I have to get involved. There is a real chance that this repeal could pass,' and we ended up getting them to hold onto the bill for a year, and over the course of that year, we were able to build a pretty impressive bipartisan coalition to go out there and really press what was actually at stake. Not only did we get them to kill the bill, but we got a 2/3 majority of the House to kill it. The final vote count was 216-105."
Now, Stowell is trying to take the same fight nationwide -- a fight that he still sees as essentially built around issues of freedom. To that end, he told TheBlaze that the wider Republican opposition to the concept puzzles him.
"I really can't figure it out," Stowell said. "I look back through history and I see so many great moments where Republicans have been ahead of the curve on the issue of freedom. Democrats have the fake 'contraception is an issue of freedom' garbage, but we were there when Eisenhower tried to pass civil rights, we were there for women's rights, and we had our founding at the ending of slavery. I find it hard to believe that any Republican would want the government managing anyone's personal life."
This puzzlement at the Republican party's refusal to back the issue was a recurring theme with the other figures who spoke for the coalition, who universally saw gay marriage as an issue not simply of good policy, but of good politics.
"Obviously, the real rationale for Republicans, conservatives and libertarians who support same-sex marriage to take that stance is not 'oh, then we will win elections.' Rather, we view it as the right thing to do and actually as something that is philosophically consistent in many of our views with our right-of-center philosophy," said Liz Mair, GOP strategist and same sex marriage supporter. "But with that being said, amongst most younger voters who will someday be older and more reliable voters, favoring the freedom to marry is a given, so there is a good political basis for it as well. Furthermore, opposition to same sex marriage is something that makes it tricky for us to get a look-in with technology talent that we need to bring onside in order to have the brain trust needed to really kick butt on the technology and digital front moving forward. It's just a fact that actual technologists-- people working on building actual tools and systems in places like Silicon Valley, Redmond, and Northern Virginia and who aren't at all interested in the GOP right now-- are overwhelmingly either liberal or libertarian. It'd be handy to have the libertarians-- who are onboard on a range of other GOP issues-- onside, and more willing to devote time and energy to helping the GOP win. Again, that's not the big reason why the party should be for this, but it also shouldn't be ignored."
Tyler Deaton, a member of the Leadership Committee at the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, was even more explicit about the youth angle. "We’re the ones who will inherit the leadership of the conservative movement, and we aren’t willing to sit around and wait for things to change," Deaton wrote in an email to TheBlaze. "The so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies legally married same-sex couples more than 1,100 federal protections, is harming families across America every day and needs to be repealed as soon as possible."
"The freedom to marry isn't a Democratic or Republican value, it's an American value," Deaton added, "and as Republican advocates and elected officials continue to make the case for marriage, we are confident that it will soon become a mainstream position of the Republican Party."
Deaton's optimism aside, there are noticeable obstacles to his position becoming mainstream in the Republican party. The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives filed a brief in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, and many hard line social conservatives are prepared to make gay marriage their hill to die on, even to the point of banning gay conservatives from gatherings like CPAC. Moreover, many libertarians are skittish about openly supporting legalization of the practice because they object to the entire notion of marriage being sponsored by the government, and would prefer if the government were removed from the issue altogether. This latter concern left Stowell a little confused.
"I don't see how it's even possible," Stowell said. "Marriage is part of the very fabric of society. I just don't see how you could separate the two."
Mair, on the other hand, agreed with the idea in theory, but dismissed it as impractical. "Candidly, yes, I would support government getting out of the marriage business altogether, but that's not going to happen," she said. "In the absence of that, giving same-sex couples the right to marry and have their marriages recognized by government is the best policy option, in my opinion."
Meanwhile, Deaton didn't rule the idea out, saying his main concern was equal protection. "I believe healthy marriages and a healthy society go hand-in-hand," he wrote. "The government should treat all marriages equally under the law."
Even for libertarian Republicans, Deaton, Mair and Stowell are pushing the envelope. GOProud, the most notable group of gay conservatives (whose board Mair sits on), has steadfastly refused to explicitly push for marriage equality. From the group's statement on the subject:
GOProud believes that stable, loving, committed relationships are the cornerstone of our society and should be protected and encouraged for all couples - including gay and lesbian couples. We believe that the decision about how to best do this is one that should be made at the state level and that these decisions are best made by the people directly or through their elected representatives - not by unelected judges.
Where civil marriage is possible, we support civil marriage. Where civil unions are possible, we support civil unions. Where domestic partner benefits are possible, we support domestic partner benefits. As federalists, we do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach on almost any issue and that includes relationship recognition for gay couples.
The push to make gay marriage a constitutional right, in fact, goes further than even President Obama, who has said he personally supports gay marriage, but considers it a state-by-state issue. Of course, Obama has also filed a brief to strike down DOMA, which makes this previous hedging look less solid.
At the same time, it's not clear that any backlash is forthcoming against either Obama or this new coalition of Republicans. Clint Eastwood, who famously derided Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention via an empty chair, has endorsed the President's position on marriage:
And as for Stowell, Mair and Deaton? According to Stowell, their only pushback has come from not being forceful enough.
"I actually see more pushback from people that say I should've been coming online earlier, or 'Of course he gets it now because he has a gay brother' kind of thing," Stowell said. "I have received nothing since the national ads started, and when I co-chaired standing up for New Hampshire Families, it was very minimal. I had one legislator tell me that I was sending us down the path of the Roman Empire, which kind of made me laugh, but people have been very responsive."