It wasn’t that long ago that Republican politicians saw opposition to same-sex marriage as an important weapon in their political arsenal, a crucial cultural “wedge issue” to deploy against their Democratic opponents. Democrats, in turn, didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory on the matter. Bill Clinton – purportedly despite his personal contempt for the legislation – backed the Defense of Marriage Act. During both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Obama split the difference – supporting civil unions for same-sex couples but opposing same-sex marriage.
In 2004, the Bush reelection campaign sought to boost turnout among cultural conservatives by orchestrating state-level referenda to ban same-sex marriage. Eight years later, though, momentum was in the process of shifting In 2012, voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington approved measures legalizing same-sex marriage. Now, roughly six years after the Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage, polls show support for same-sex marriage as high as 70%. But it doesn’t seem like any of the politicians who decried same-sex marriage in apocalyptic terms – let alone did so for obviously cynical reasons – paid any price.
I’ve been thinking of this history as I read about Republican efforts to turn transphobia into the gay-baiting of the 2020s. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Adam Serwer has a good discussion of the similarities and what they tell us about the GOP.
Again and again, Republicans have targeted groups they believe too small or too powerless to spark a costly political backlash. By attacking them, the GOP seeks to place Democrats in a political bind. If they decline to bow to demagoguery, Democrats risk looking either too culturally avant-garde for the comfort of more conservative voters—whose support they need to remain viable—or too preoccupied with defending the rights of a beleaguered minority to pay attention to bread-and-butter issues that matter to the majority. This strategy has worked in the past—President Bill Clinton, who signed the federal statute outlawing same-sex marriage in 1996, was no Republican. Many people across the political spectrum accept the premise that defending a marginalized group’s civil rights is “identity politics,” while choosing to strip away those rights is not.
In 2004, Republicans pursued a good-cop/bad-cop strategy: Bush sounded notes of tolerance and acceptance in public, while Republican strategists pursued an anti-gay-rights agenda behind the scenes. In 2012, the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, ran to the right of Bush on both immigration and LGBTQ issues in order to prove that he was “severely conservative.” In 2016, the Republican base wanted a nominee who would sound their hatreds with a foghorn rather than a dog whistle. Trump obliged, promising to ban Muslims from coming to the United States and build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump had previously mocked Romney’s harsh “self-deportation” policy as “maniacal,” but the reality-show star knew what the Republican base wanted in a president when he finally ran.
That brings us to 2021. Republicans lost the fight over marriage equality so decisively that some now pretend not to have vigorously opposed it in the first place—much to the alarm of many religious conservatives, who are their most dedicated supporters. The fight over immigration is locked in a stalemate, because Trump showed national Republicans that embracing nativism is less politically costly than they had supposed. Anti-Muslim animus has hardly disappeared, but it is no longer as useful a tool to oppose the current leader of the Democratic Party, an elderly Irish Catholic man.
Same as it ever was.