Commentary

Republicans Amid Changing Opinions on Social Issues

The Supreme Court decision striking down state bans on same-sex marriage has reignited the culture wars and highlighted potential fault lines for Republican presidential contenders.

Social issues pose a difficult conundrum for Republicans. On the one hand, there is little doubt that an overly strident rhetoric costs the GOP support among independents, moderates, and suburbanites who might otherwise be attracted to Republican candidates on economic issues. Rick Santorum promising to use the presidential bully pulpit to preach against contraception or the “legitimate rape” musings of Todd Akin leave an impression that cannot be easily erased. On the other hand, religious conservatives remain an essential component of the Republican coalition. By some estimates as many as 40 percent of GOP primary voters identify themselves as white evangelical Christians. Republican presidential candidates, therefore, must walk a very fine line, satisfying their base without alienating general-election swing voters.

Gay marriage poses a particular problem. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support gay marriage, including 37 percent of Republicans. Young Americans are even more likely to favor gay marriage — some 78 percent, according to Gallup. Indeed, gay marriage is very nearly a threshold question for many young voters: They will not support a candidate opposed to gay marriage even if they agree with that candidate on other issues. And, according to Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, 60 percent of independent swing voters back marriage equality.

With a few notable exceptions, most of the GOP candidates would prefer to fight the upcoming campaign on economic and foreign-policy issues.

The Republican presidential candidates are deeply split on the issue. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich expressed pro forma disagreement with the Court’s decision, but quickly indicated that the issue is now settled and it’s time to move on. They pledged to fight for religious freedom (preserving the rights of those who do not wish to participate in gay weddings, for example), but suggested that they will spend their time talking about economic and foreign-policy issues.

In contrast, other candidates, including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, focused on rallying the faithful, with Huckabee urging massive civil disobedience. While Huckabee’s stance in particular should play well with conservative electorates in Iowa and South Carolina, he risks looking like George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door come the general election.

And, if it was possible to take a harder line than Huckabee’s, it was taken by Ted Cruz, who may have won the hyperbole contest when he called last Friday “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” (Darker than 9/11? Pearl Harbor? the Birmingham bombing? Dred Scott?) Cruz has thrown out a grab-bag of remedies, including a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between “one man and one woman,” a bill to strip courts of the power to hear marriage cases, and judicial-retention elections for the Supreme Court Justices. Of course, that doesn’t go as far as Bobby Jindal’s suggestion that we abolish the Court altogether.

Scott Walker appeared to take a hard line initially, calling for a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban gay marriage. But later, at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, Walker omitted any mention of such an amendment, calling instead for “respect” for religious-based opposition to gay marriage.

Rand Paul responded immediately to the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, expressing “anger” over it. But it took him more than two days to comment on the gay-marriage decision. When he did weigh in, though, it was with the interesting proposition that the government should get out of the business of licensing marriage altogether. Several states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, are reportedly considering such a move: ceasing to issue marriage licenses. Instead, any couple could simply register their marriage with a contract signed by either a notary or a cleric. Paul quipped that he has often said he doesn’t want the government “registering my guns or my marriage.”

Abortion is a much harder political call. Polls show voters close to evenly split, depending on how the question is asked. Most voters don’t want to see all abortions outlawed, but are generally willing to support restrictions and regulations that reduce the number of abortions. Except for the extreme partisans on both sides, it is an issue that makes most voters uncomfortable either way. For example, according to Gallup, just 19 percent of Americans would ban abortion completely, while 29 percent oppose any restrictions. But more than half of Americans want abortion to be legal under some limited circumstances — very much a middle ground. Similarly, 61 percent want to keep abortion legal during the first trimester, but that turns around to 64 percent opposition in the second trimester. Majorities also support such restrictions as requiring ultrasounds, parental consent, and waiting periods.

Even young voters are ambivalent. Polls show that 40 percent of voters in the 18-34 age bracket consider themselves pro-life, while 50 percent call themselves pro-choice. Compare that with the numbers above on gay marriage. Still, Republicans face a challenge in finding ways to talk about the issue that don’t seem condescending toward women.

The GOP candidates are uniformly pro-life, and all the major candidates have endorsed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks (generally with exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother), but there are differences in emphasis and approach. Walker, for instance, has said that, while he is “proudly pro-life,” he intends to focus his campaign on fiscal issues. Rubio also tends to soft-pedal his pro-life views. Although he supported abortion restrictions when he was in the Florida legislature and is a co-sponsor of the federal bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, he also says that he “understands fully that a woman’s right to an abortion is the law.”

Interestingly, while Bush has been a moderate on so many issues, he has consistently taken a strict pro-life stance. In addition to backing a full ban on abortion (with the usual rape, incest, and health exceptions), Bush supports a variety of restrictions, including waiting periods and parental notification. As governor, he backed strict regulation of abortion clinics, which forced many to close. His Department of Children and Families sought to bar a minor girl who had had sex while in the state’s protective custody from having an abortion. He has also been calling attention to his pro-life credentials by highlighting his role in the Terri Schiavo case. Last month, he reminded the Faith and Freedom Conference that “When I was asked to intervene on behalf of a woman who could not speak up for herself I stood on her side. I stood on the side of Terri Schiavo and her parents.”

Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz, who are fighting for the evangelical vote in the early primary states, have, unsurprisingly, been the most uncompromising on the issue and have been among the candidates who most frequently talk about their position. Both Huckabee and Santorum back a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution that would ban abortions nationally. In doing so, they contrast themselves to some of their opponents who seem more comfortable with individual states making their own decisions if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Cruz has not yet taken a formal position on the Human Life Amendment, but he is a co-sponsor of the 20-week abortion ban. All three would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

Somewhat more of a surprise has been the strongly pro-life stance taken by Rand Paul, particularly in the media, where he has challenged reporters and Democrats about their support for late-term abortions. He has sponsored legislation declaring that human life begins at conception — which opponents claim would outlaw some forms of birth control as well as all abortion — as well as the 20-week abortion ban currently being debated in Congress. He has called for legislation barring federal courts from hearing abortion cases. He has been ambiguous about whether he supports exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s health.

With a few notable exceptions, most of the GOP candidates would prefer to fight the upcoming campaign on economic and foreign-policy issues, where Democrats appear vulnerable. Social issues can be a political minefield, especially given rapidly evolving American attitudes. In the last few elections, Republicans have not shown the political dexterity needed to navigate this changing electoral terrain. Whether they can do so this time around may make the difference between victory and defeat in 2016.