It was clear in 2012 that Mitt Romney would be the last GOP presidential nominee to defend traditional marriage. Neither Windsor nor Obergefell had yet been handed down, but the writing was on the wall. The country had shifted, and the GOP would eventually reflect that shift. That is why I wrote the following in early 2013:
If demographics is destiny, it is very clear what is going on here. The Republican party’s future will be no different from the Democratic party’s present on the issue of marriage. It also means that social conservatives who insist on public policies supporting traditional marriage will be increasingly alienated from the party. There won’t be a place at the GOP table very much longer for social conservatives who care about this issue.
That is already true in terms of potential presidential candidates. I have said it before, and I will say it again. 2012 was the last time the GOP will ever run a presidential candidate who opposes gay marriage at the level of public policy. Those days are behind us. It is only a matter of time—perhaps a very short time—before a majority of the GOP finds itself in full support of the right of gay people to wed.
The last four years have born this out. GOP politicians do not offer full-throated defenses of traditional marriage anymore. If they speak about it at all, it is usually a passing reference to say that Obergefell was wrongly decided and that marriage law should have been left to the states. That is fine so far as it goes. My point is that it does not go as far as GOP politicians used to go—which included support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage. Things have changed.
If politics is the art of the possible, many GOP politicians seem to have made the calculation that it is no longer possible to advocate for traditional marriage. To do so alienates too many voters, and it is political suicide to do so.
And it is on this political reality that Peter Leithart comments today over at First Things. He writes:
It’s not surprising that marriage has been muted. What surprises is how easily the GOP has fallen into line. If a Republican candidate did the private/public two-step on abortion, his campaign would be abortive. When a candidate does it with marriage, there’s nary a peep. It seems the GOP has determined that marriage isn’t worth much of a fuss. Where are the howls of protest? Where have all the Bad Republicans gone?
Declaring a personal commitment to traditional marriage is nothing more than a sop to social conservatives unless it’s backed up by action. Either marriage is a basic institution of society, or it isn’t. Either family is essential to healthy public life, or it’s not. If the GOP isn’t willing to risk anything to conserve this institution, what is it conserving?
The GOP’s survival tactics may look savvy, but they will backfire. Here as everywhere, you save your life only by losing it.
In other words, Leithart argues that marriage is a hill worth dying on. The GOP, by and large, has decided that it is not.
Right now, all the energy in the GOP on the marriage issue has shifted to a defense of religious liberty. Years ago, the strategic calculation was that the GOP had to do this before the window closes for such protections to be enacted. But if the last couple of years have shown us anything, they’ve shown us that religious liberty vis a vis gay marriage is also becoming increasingly unpopular (as Robbie George presciently predicted four years ago). If you don’t believe me, just look at what has happened in Indiana, Arkansas, and Georgia and what is happening right now to North Carolina and Mississippi.
When defending traditional marriage became politically untenable, the GOP decided it wasn’t a hill to die on. When defending religious liberty becomes equally untenable, how long will it take for the GOP to decide that religious liberty is not a hill to die on either?