Gay marriage: Why Sen. Chambliss' clunky quote indicates softening GOP stance

Republican Senator Chambliss has taken some flak for saying he opposes gay marriage because he's 'not gay.' But it's another sign that GOP opposition is moving from doctrinaire to personal.

Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California (l.) and the committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, last week. Sen. Chambliss is getting some flak online for remarks he made to Politico about gay marriage.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss is getting some blowback online for remarks he made to Politico about gay marriage. Asked if he might ever reconsider his opposition to marriage equality, Senator Chambliss is quoted as saying: "I'm not gay, so I'm not going to marry one." 

Predictably, this has sparked a slew of mocking headlines and comments.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Chambliss's hometown paper, went with "Gay Marriage? Saxby Chambliss says he's taken." Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall posted simply: "Tough Hurdle: So Sen. Saxby Chambliss has to become gay apparently before he'll support marriage equality." New York Magazine's Jon Chait joked: "Given that personal experience seems to be how Republican senators change their minds on the issue, I would urge gay-rights groups to introduce some handsome, charming guys to Senator Chambliss and see if sparks fly."

What's interesting to us about Chambliss's "quip," however inartful, is that it doesn't really sound like strident opposition. Unlike previous election cycles, when most Republicans were actively promoting legislative measures to prevent gay marriage, these days they seem to be taking pains to emphasize that their opposition to it is strictly personal.

Policy-wise, they're no longer pushing for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but increasingly arguing that it is an issue that should be left up to the states. And more and more GOP officials like Chambliss are describing their views with lines that sound almost like "this old dog can't learn new tricks." The implication: they're not really trying to fight the tide of history. They're just asking to be allowed to maintain their own views.

We heard the same kind of tone in House Speaker John Boehner's comments on the subject last weekend on ABC's "This Week." Asked about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's recent announcement that he now supports gay marriage, Mr. Boehner said he could not envision himself having a similar change of heart. "Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman," Boehner said. "It's what I grew up with. It's what I believe. It's what my church teaches me. And I can't imagine that position would ever change." Asked how he could justify denying Portman's son, who is gay, the right to marry, Boehner added: "Listen – I think that Rob can make up his – his own mind, take his own position."

This rhetorical shift seems in line with the conclusion in the Republican National Committee's recent "autopsy report" that Republicans must offer a more inclusive posture on issues like gay marriage, which, it said, is causing many young people to view the GOP as "totally intolerant of alternative views." According to the report: "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. If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."

This week a new Washington Post/ABC poll found a record 58 percent of Americans now believe gay marriage should be legal, including 52 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29.

Still, actually supporting gay marriage remains a dicey stand for GOP elected officials. For many social conservatives – who play an active role in Republican primary contests – opposition to gay marriage is a strongly held plank. As The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins told The Hill this week, if the GOP abandons its opposition to gay marriage, "evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely – or move to create a third party. Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority."

So it's not surprising to see most Republican elected officials still saying they oppose gay marriage – while trying in general to shift focus away from the issue, and couching their opposition in increasingly personal, and far less political terms.

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