A great age of Republican whining is upon us. Across the country, people are accepting same-sex marriage. It is becoming a losing issue for the right, and some politicians are even changing their minds about the whole thing. But generally, conservatives are responding to this by quibbling about the particulars, as George Will did last week. One thing you are seeing - and will continue to see - is the argument that "I personally feel X about the issue, but let the states decide, for goshsakes." Will himself just wrote a states' rights column on DOMA, Marco Rubio loudly defended a states' rights position at CPAC, Carly Fiorina was jabbering about it recently, and Washington Post conservative Jennifer Rubin wrote an approving piece on Rand Paul's view of the matter. Many Republicans will follow along, and your scary prehistoric uncle will be talking about how he doesn't mind the gays, but federalism's important, dammit, in the coming months. Here are three reasons:
1. The GOP wants plausible deniability for their bigots. The Republican "autopsy report" came up with a plan for increasing its supporters among Hispanics, Asians, women, African Americans, and young people. Guess which group didn't make the cut? To be fair, the report does nominally list gay Americans as one of its campaign targets. But it gives the other groups each a detailed section on strategy, on how to make this happen. Instead of really worrying about gaining gay votes, the report makes it clear that the Republicans are more concerned about how the issue looks to another group, young people:
Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.
It's not about winning actual gay people. It's about convincing the 22 year-olds who just read The Fountainhead that they're not going to get too much hassle from their gay friends and relatives if they vote Big Red. Why?
2. The 2014 election will raise the stakes of 2004 for the base. People have analyzed - and criticized - the notion that putting gay marriage bans on state ballots during the 2004 race increased Republican votes. The idea is that the kinds of people who wanted this to pass were going to show up in greater numbers, and pull the lever for the Republicans while they were there. This report from scholars at the University of Florida concluded that the measure in Ohio did not increase overall turnout, but it did provide more support for Bush. The results were mixed, but there's evidence the GOP tried it again in 2006.
Now however, it's different, because social conservatives are on the defensive. Over the next two years, a dozen states will probably be adopting measures to legalize same-sex marriage. If you are a member of the religious right, what you will see if you fail this time won't be the status quo - it will be a whole new rainbow-colored world. Republicans might not be able to reliably pump up the social conservative vote with a same-sex ban, but obviously they can alienate these people by moving too far to the left while the groups are facing what they consider a serious struggle. Some Republicans will take the bold move of supporting gay marriage outright, but if you can't afford to anger social cons, this is your play. And the GOP autopsy report mentions in several places that they need to reach out to churches and faith-based groups in order to gain Hispanic votes and mobilize support generally - which makes it tougher to liberalize on gay rights. GOP candidates will need a way to gain moderate votes by appearing to "soften" on the issue, while still signaling to the hard right that they identify with their cause. How will they do this?
3. Republicans have an opportunity to play the victim card. Rubio's exact statement at CPAC shows how a candidate can seem like he's not quite anti-gay while still being anti-gay. It reveals a strategy for continuing to appeal to the right wing, while giving centrists a way of saying you're not that awful:
Just because I believe states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.
See? It's a perfect way of taking up the cause of the people who've opposed gay marriage all along, while they continue to fight it out at the state level. But it sounds much, much more reasonable than telling people it wasn't Adam and Steve in Eden!
Also, conservatives have a track record of using the language of defense to fight against gay rights. They talk about "defending the institution of marriage." They used it to describe how poor Dan Cathy was being targeted by powerful liberal politicians. They even use it for other social issues - like the "war on Christmas" they resurrect every late November. "Defending" people against being labeled as bigots is a natural extension of rhetoric they've employed all along.
The GOP finds itself in a tough spot, as national opinions grow further and further from a base they've depended on for decades. This strategy helps them have it both ways, it risks little, and it provides a reasonable patina for homophobia. To believe they're going to leave it behind, you have to picture a party that will just refuse, on principle, to take advantage of the prejudices of millions of Americans.
And we all know that Republican party doesn't exist.