Why GOP reaction is muted as judge affirms gay marriage rights

GOP conservatives may not be itching for a culture war over a judge's decision overturning California's gay marriage ban. Economic issues, not cultural ones, are their focus heading into Election 2010.

By , Staff writer

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    Judge Vaughn Walker in his chambers in July 2009. Judge Walker ruled that Proposition 8, California's law banning gay marriage, is unconstitutional.
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Just a few years ago, a court ruling that overturned a state's gay-marriage ban would have stirred stronger objections than those that arose from the political right this week after a federal judge invalidated California's voter-approved Proposition 8.

But beating that drum now may risk being seen as so 2004. Instead, Republican leaders today are focused intently on the economy – and on blaming Democratic policies for its still-sluggish state – as they try to rally independents, libertarians, and "tea party" adherents around conservative economic ideals in advance of midterm elections.

"Every indicator that I have ... generally speaking, is that economic growth and job creation are the tandem issues that will be the principal drivers of voter decision at polls,” Republican National Committee political director Gentry Collins told reporters Thursday. "What I’m encouraging candidates to do is go out and run on an economic platform, a jobs platform."

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That's not to say passions no longer run high on gay marriage. Atlanta on Saturday is host to dueling protests over the Proposition 8 ruling from California, as will be the case for other US communities in coming days. Indeed, the ruling in California, if validated on appeal, could affect some or all of the 45 states with similar gay-marriage bans on their books or embedded in their constitutions.

But Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and a staunch opponent of gay marriage, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and a several other top Republicans have offered muted responses so far to Wednesday's ruling from federal Judge Vaughn Walker. He found that Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California in 2008, is unconstitutional under the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.

Judge Walker, a Republican appointee, is now weighing whether to allow the state to move ahead with gay marriages immediately or whether to hold off on new same-sex marriages while his ruling is appealed. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials on Friday formally asked the court to allow marriages to proceed in the interim – a change of position for the "Governator," who had twice vetoed laws that would have secured the rights of gays in the state to marry.

In 2004, Republicans introduced 11 measures against same-sex marriage in various states, as part of a strategy to attract conservative voters to the polls at a time when President George W. Bush was running for reelection. President Bush himself railed against activist judges and backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

But the gay marriage issue, after years in the culture-wars limelight, may be losing its luster as a hot-button political wedge, writes Peter Dreier on the Huffington Post website. He points to polls showing that a majority of Americans have gay or lesbian friends.

"The gay rights movement has won Americans' hearts and minds," he writes. "The tide has turned. Opponents can try, but they can't push it back."

But protests like those Saturday in Atlanta show that Americans remain deeply divided not only over gay marriage, but also over the courts' role, which some see as a judicial fiat to impose a minority view on the majority. Prop. 8, which outlawed gay marriage, passed with 52 percent of the vote in California.

"The debate over gay marriage is, for some, a case in which government policy is being misused as a way to secure popular validation of a lifestyle to which some people, on moral grounds, strongly object," writes US News & World Report's Peter Roff.

Some conservative political operatives note that the Prop. 8 case may, in fact, become an issue in individual races in closely contested races where it could give one side an edge.

But Republicans have good reason to leave the Prop. 8 debate alone, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told Politico. “A modern party does not want a campaign that’s built around a crusade on gay rights. ...[I]t won’t work, for one thing, and for another, it’s so controversial that it would obscure the nonpartisan appeal of the economic issue," he said.

[Editor's note: The photo caption in an earlier version of this story misstated the day that the photo was taken.]

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