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Is Jeb Bush 'evolving' on same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues?

Jeb Bush says he believes in ‘traditional marriage.’ But recent comments indicate a softening of his opinion on same-sex marriage, and the presidential campaign team he’s putting together includes prominent pro-gay-rights Republicans.

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    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.
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Like all Republicans seriously competing for their party’s presidential nomination, Jeb Bush doesn’t favor same-sex marriage. At least that’s his stated position, repeated this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

"No. I believe in traditional marriage," the former Florida governor said when asked by Sean Hannity of Fox News if his position on the issue had changed. “Traditional marriage,” among social conservatives, is code for the legal and religious union restricted to one man and one woman.

But like a lot of politicians – including President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton – Mr. Bush seems to have “evolved” toward a position of acceptance if not approval of gay marriage. That’s the import of reports Friday in the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, including a fascinating look at the pro-gay-rights people he’s hired to run his campaign.

In a Miami Herald op-ed back in 2004, Bush argued against legal protections based on sexual orientation.

“The public policy question is whether homosexuals deserve special legal protection…,” he wrote. “Or, to put it another way, should sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion? My answer is No. We have enough special categories, enough victims, without creating even more.”

That’s not the language he would use today, his spokesmen have said. (You can almost see them wince.)

“Gov. Bush believes that our society should have a culture of respect for all people, regardless of their differences, and that begins with preventing discrimination, including when it comes to sexual orientation,” Kristy Campbell, Bush’s spokeswoman, said in a statement to Buzzfeed last month.

For a Republican who’s relatively moderate – see his positions on immigration and Common Core education standards – that’s probably not surprising given what’s happened in the courts since Bush talked about “sodomy” back in 2004.

Thanks largely to a rapid-fire series of court rulings, “marriage equality,” as supporters call it, is now legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia – an area covering more than 70 percent of the US population.

The way that’s happened is a problem for many conservatives – including Bush – who hold that such decisions should be made by voters and legislators at the state level, not appointed federal judges.

Still, as Huffington Post senior political reporter Amanda Terkel points out, Bush has “little appetite to repeal marriage equality through means such as amending the U.S. Constitution.”

"We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law," Bush said in January, when a federal court found that Florida’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. "I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue – including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."

In a 2012 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, Bush gave what sounds like an even more heartfelt clue as to any evolution he might have had.

"I don't think people need to be discriminated against because they don't share my belief on this, and if people love their children with all their heart and soul and that's what they do and that's how they organize their life, that should be held up as examples for others to follow because we need it," he said. "We desperately need it and that can take all sorts of forms, it doesn't have to take the one that I think should be sanctioned under the law."

In Buzzfeed this week, senior writer McKay Coppins reported important details about the campaign organization Bush has been putting together, which seems to move him even farther toward gay rights.

“When Bush officially launches his presidential bid later this year, he will likely do so with a campaign manager who has urged the Republican Party to adopt a pro-gay agenda; a chief strategist who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing for marriage equality in California; a longtime adviser who once encouraged her minister to stick to his guns in preaching equality for same-sex couples; and a communications director who is openly gay.

“To an extent that would have been unthinkable in past elections, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has stocked his inner circle with advisers who are vocal proponents of gay rights. And while the Bush camp says his platform will not be shaped by his lieutenants’ personal beliefs, many in the monied, moderate, corporate wing of the GOP – including pragmatic donors, secular politicos, and other members of the establishment – are cheering the early hires as a sign that Bush will position himself as the gay-friendly Republican in the 2016 field.”

A recent piece in Metro Weekly, a publication and website serving Washington, DC’s gay and lesbian community, carried this headline: “Jeb Bush’s softening tone on marriage equality.”

This could all be much ado about nothing. Or maybe it does say something important about the direction the GOP and one of its leading presidential hopefuls is heading.

Still, Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign on Friday released this statement about Bush:

“At the end of the day, it isn’t rhetoric or hiring practices that count, it’s what a candidates stands for. A candidate who is truly committed to [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] equality will support marriage equality and support protecting all LGBT Americans from discrimination. While the tone of Jeb Bush’s language and word choice may have changed, he hasn’t yet articulated different policies from when he opposed marriage equality and opposed discrimination protections as governor. There are more questions than answers on where Bush stands today.”

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