Gay marriage: To endorse or not to endorse?

2013-03-27 08:41
Demonstrators chant outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on California's voter approved ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Demonstrators chant outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on California's voter approved ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

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Chicago - Tuesday and Wednesday were and are exceptionally significant days for supporters and opponents of gay marriage in the USA, as two significant cases on the issue are heard in the Supreme Court.
Tuesday's oral arguments were about the constitutionality of California's gay marriage referendum – a court decision that could have the potential to prohibit states from banning or recognising gay marriage. Wednesday is the case against the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which is the only federal law (almost all marriage laws are done at the state level) regarding marriage, and forbids the federal government from officially recognising any same-sex couples. DOMA therefore prevents all of the federal rights given to different-sex marriages from same-sex parings, such as tax benefits and spousal visas, for example.
And politicians are running around the country like headless chickens trying to work out just how expedient their reactions can be to their careers.
It is easier for Democrats, one of whose major constituencies is gay men and women, to line up in support of gay marriage, as polls show 58% of the country favours gays being allowed to marry, and accept all that comes with it. Hillary Clinton, long favoured to be the USA's next president, joined the club last week – she refused to endorse it as recently as 2008 when she ran for president and lost the Democrat nomination to current President Barack Obama, who himself only endorsed it in 2012 after having his hand forced by Vice President Joe Biden.
It is a testament to how rapidly public opinion is changing that last year it was thought Obama would hurt at the polls for saying a civil right such as marrying who you want should be extended to homosexuals – now Democrats can't get behind it fast enough.

This week alone, four Democrat Senators from socially conservative states all publicly backed the institution: Claire McCaskill from Missouri, Mark Warner from Virginia, Jay Rockerfeller from West Virginia and Jon Tester from Montana. Rockerfeller is somewhat of an exception there as he is retiring and won't face voters again, but Warner is up for re-election next time the USA votes, next year. Tester, while running for election last year, was against gay marriage but has seemingly come around in the last week.

Election autopsy

It likely helps both Tester and McCaskill that they were both just re-elected and won't face the ballot box again until 2018 – this is reflected in a number of Democrats who are defending their Senate seats in conservative states next year who refuse to commit to a position – likely meaning they back the measure but their constituents don't. In the most difficult position of all could be Democrat Senator from North Carolina, Kay Hagan, whose state last year passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (on top of the fact that the state legislature had already declared it illegal).
While some Democrats might be struggling over it, so are Republicans who have used the gay marriage issue to great effect before to fire up their own base. Republicans in recent times have been the victors when it has come to culture wars between the parties, until that balloon was popped in the 2012 election when Democrats held onto the presidency despite endorsing same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy, forcing healthcare providers to cover reproductive health including contraceptives and so on.
The Republican leadership and the Republican base seem at odds over what to do about gay marriage. Last week Republican National Committee chairperson Reince Priebus released an "autopsy" about what happened in the November elections, and why Republicans did so badly.

One of the key points of that report claimed the party haemorrhaged votes from young people (a group Obama won by 24 percentage points) due to its views about gay rights. Whether that is the reason for deserting the Republican Party or not, polling shows that young people are more concerned with the civil rights of gays to the point where parties need to take note; a plurality of young voters across all parties back gay marriage.

Trickily, however, the rest of the Republican Party doesn’t favour it in majorities, so the leadership is trying to find acceptable ground. It currently straddles both points of view, which isn’t really going to work as neither side is happy about the other. Priebus said earlier this week that while he believes marriage is solely between a man and a woman, other points of view should not be rejected within the party. In other words, you can favour gay marriage and be a Republican if you want, but we don't. Confusing? Yes.

Jury's out

Republicans' danger is that its influential right wing could be alienated should it decide to attract younger voters by endorsing (fully or partly) same-sex marriage. Yet it stands to continue haemorrhaging the votes of young people by continuing to stand against it. And it is worth noting that the tags attached to the Republican Party are not just about being against gay marriage: They include opposition to legislation preventing discrimination in the workplace, miseducation regarding homosexuality, supporting the Boy Scouts ban on gays and so on.

As things stand Republicans are okay with saying gay marriage should be left up to the states to decide (as are many Democrats), but gay marriage is likely to become somewhat of a wedge issue when it comes to future campaigns. The direction things are going means candidates will likely have to present their personal views about gay marriage for the public to decide upon before primaries and elections.
It is virtually inconceivable that a Democrat candidate for president from 2016 onwards will be able to win the nomination without backing marriage, and other civil rights for gays. The jury is still out on the Republicans.

Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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