The idea that the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage is a good thing for Republicans sounds counterintuitive — after all, the GOP is the party of traditional marriage.
But here's why it might actually be a good thing for the party:
1. Public opinion is changing — at lightning speed.
There's never been a social issue in America on which public attitudes reached a tipping point so quickly.
In 2014, support for gay marriage nationally was 56 percent. That's up from 30 percent in 2004. And among young people it's even higher. In the Republican Party, though, it's a different story. Around 70 percent of Republicans are against gay marriage, even though around 60 percent of young Republicans support it. There's no question where public sentiment is heading on this issue, and Republicans are very aware of this. What's now a popular position in a GOP primary is an unpopular, even untenable, position in a general election. A court decision in favor of marriage equality would allow Republican presidential candidates to say, "I'm opposed to gay marriage but the court has spoken so now let's talk about something else."
2. A court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage would let Republican candidates off the hook.
Republican presidential candidates are doubling down on their opposition to gay marriage while at the same time trying to prove they respect gay people. It's an ungainly two-step. This weekend at the Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting in Iowa, Sen. Marco Rubio told the Christian Broadcasting Network that there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
"You have to have a ridiculous reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex," Rubio said. But Rubio knows that support for gay marriage is now a proxy for tolerance, especially among millennials, who tend to dismiss candidates they think are old-fashioned and out of touch.
So Rubio, who is presenting himself as a new-generation Republican, has also said that he would attend a gay wedding — and that he believes being gay is not a choice. Even Ted Cruz — the Tea Party-backed conservative firebrand who announced his candidacy with a clarion call for traditional marriage — held an event at a gay couple's home in New York City, where he told them he would be comfortable if his daughter were gay. Republicans would much rather not be talking about this at all, and if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality, many Republican candidates would heave a (private) sigh of relief. It would also allow them to talk about other social issues on which public opinion is more divided, like religious liberty or abortion.
3. A Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage would mark a truce in the culture wars.
It wasn't so long ago that Democrats were on the defensive when it came to cultural issues — crime, welfare, abortion, even same-sex marriage. But in the past 10 years that's changed as Republicans found themselves fending off charges of intolerance toward women, gays and minorities. Today even conservative evangelical leaders no longer demonize gays and lesbians the way past generations of culture warriors did. If the Supreme Court rules for gay marriage, it could simply take the issue off the table. And maybe 2016 would be the last election where the issue of gay marriage matters — even for Republican voters.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court hears arguments in the cases that could lead to a ruling making same-sex marriage legal across the country. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports that as public attitudes on this issue have changed, it has become more complicated for the Republican Party to address.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For Republicans wrestling with the issue of same-sex marriage, the speed at which public opinion is changing can be disorienting.
PETE WEHNER: We've never seen a cultural issue in our lifetime move with this kind of speed, and there's just no question the direction that it's going and Republicans are aware of this.
LIASSON: That's Pete Wehner, former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush. Nationally, public support for gay marriage is now in the mid-50s, but 70 percent of Republican voters are opposed. That means being against gay marriage is a popular position in a Republican primary, but a very unpopular position in a general election. And that's why, says Wehner...
WEHNER: Republicans and conservatives just don't want to talk about this issue very much. They just don't have the stomach for it. It's hard to overestimate how little enthusiasm Republicans have about talking about the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage.
LIASSON: But they are being asked about it a lot, and their answers show just how much of a high wire act this issue has become. Republican presidential candidates are doubling down on their opposition to gay marriage while at the same time trying to show respect for gay people. Here's Marco Rubio on the Christian Broadcasting Network this weekend stating emphatically that there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
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SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: You have to have a ridiculous reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex.
LIASSON: But support for gay unions is now a kind of proxy for tolerance, especially with younger voters who tend to dismiss candidates they feel are old-fashioned or out of touch. So Rubio has also said he'd attend a gay wedding and that being gay is not a choice. Here he is on CBS.
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RUBIO: The bottom line is that I believe that sexual preference is something that people are born with.
LIASSON: Then there was Jeb Bush, campaigning in New Hampshire, saying he's for traditional marriage but...
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JEB BUSH: Having said that, I have no animus in my heart. I have no hatred or no bitterness in my heart for people that have a different view.
LIASSON: So what does the upcoming Supreme Court decision mean for Republicans? Pete Wehner thinks if the court rules for same-sex marriage, it could actually help Republicans escape from their current political dilemma.
WEHNER: Most Republicans - maybe all the Republicans - running in 2016 are going to say they're for traditional marriage, but the court has spoken. It's the law of the land. We don't agree with it, but there's not a lot we can do about it and then they're going to try and pivot to other issues.
LIASSON: And even Christian conservative leaders like Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty's Commission, are fine with that.
RUSSELL MOORE: I'm not concerned about what sort of weddings presidential candidates go to. I'm concerned about what sort of judges and justices they appoint.
LIASSON: Conservative Christians remain opposed to gay marriage, but Moore says things are changing, even inside the evangelical movement.
MOORE: Most mainstream evangelicals are ministering to gay and lesbian, same-sex attracted people in their communities. They don't demonize them in the way that perhaps some past generations of culture warriors might have done.
LIASSON: Moore says he's bracing for the court to do what he calls, quote, "the wrong thing," but in the future, he hopes gay marriage can follow the path taken by another hot button social issue - abortion.
MOORE: If you went into a time machine back to 1973 and asked someone at the National Abortion Rights Action League what will the pro-life movement look like in 2015, they probably would have said there won't be a pro-life movement in 2015 because the issue will be settled.
LIASSON: But it wasn't - public opinion on abortion has remained remarkably stable and divided.
MOORE: The reason for that is because the pro-life movement took a long-term strategy, and they understood that they have to work not only legislatively, but we have to work in persuading people in the culture.
LIASSON: That may be the best case, long-term scenario that opponents of same-sex marriage can imagine, but in the shorter term, the best outcome for Republican candidates may be that the Supreme Court simply takes this issue off the table and that 2016 is the last election where gay marriage matters, even for their own voters. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.