Guy Benson, the political editor at the conservative website Townhall.com and a Fox News contributor, had a new book out last week with Mary Katharine Ham: End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun). In a footnote in the book, added at the last minute, Benson reveals for the first time that he's gay.
The reaction to the revelation, leaked a month early, was interesting. Some gay websites reacted angrily, as with Queerty's "the fact that Republicans have been running for decades on homophobia makes us inclined to sweep Benson and his anti-gay apologizing rhetoric out with the rest of the garbage." And the commenters, as usual, were worse.
On the right, the American Family Association demanded that Benson be fired and barred from conservative conferences. But other conservatives barely seemed to notice. Benson reported that he got positive messages from Karl Rove and Sean Hannity, along with a softball interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox. He and Ham are speaking at the College Republican National Convention, the Reagan Library, the Western Conservative Summit and the Illinois Policy Institute.
Conservatives clearly aren't ready to join Benson and Ham in supporting gay marriage. But they don't seem to be bothered to discover that an articulate young conservative is both gay and a supporter of marriage equality.
And this isn't the only example of conservatives losing interest in cultural war. Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report in the Washington Post that while conservative talkers like Bill Bennett and Rush Limbaugh are denouncing Bruce Jenner's declaration that he is now a woman named Caitlyn – Limbaugh called Jenner a "freak show" — Mike Huckabee was the only Republican presidential candidate to make a critical comment.
Karl Rove wrote this month in the Wall Street Journal that Republicans must find a way to talk about social issues without alienating the growing number of social moderates and liberals in the electorate, noting that support for same-sex marriage has risen from 40% in 2009 to 60% today.
Republicans were already taking that advice, mostly by trying to avoid the issue. Even in 2012 Republicans could see the long-term damage that the anti-gay crusade was doing them. Back in 2004 they thought that social issues, especially gay marriage bans, would help them win the presidential election. It wasn't really true even then: it turns out George W. Bush's share of the vote rose just slightly less in the marriage-ban states than in the other states: up 2.6% in the states with marriage bans on the ballot, up 2.9% in the other states.
In 2012, even though President Obama and the Democratic platform endorsed marriage equality, Mitt Romney and the Republicans stayed away from the issue. With good reason. The Washington Post reported that October: "Voters back gay marriage by 21 points in Florida, 15 points in Ohio and nine in Virginia."
Republican candidates and their advisers know that opposition to same-sex marriage remains strong in their base, but that more than two-thirds of young voters support it. Campaigning against gay marriage is a good way to make the Democratic advantage among young people permanent.
Sometimes social change happens when people announce a change of heart. Sometimes you know it's happening when one side tries to change the subject. That sound you don't hear right now, of major Republican candidates making gay marriage a key issue in their campaigns? That's the sound of social change happening.