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Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz walks off the Senate floor between votes at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Analysis: The GOP's long silence on same-sex marriage is over

For years, Republicans maintained a strategic quiet on marriage equality. That's no longer a tenable position.


Forty-seven. That's the number of House Republicans who favor marriage equality. A little more than one-fifth of the caucus, or a little less than one-quarter. It is maybe more than you expected, maybe less.

The truth, is we didn't know how Republican members felt until Tuesday, when the House voted on a bill to codify same-sex marriage rights amid new fears that the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court might one day roll them back.

That's because the politics around gay marriage are a little weird. It was arguably the biggest domestic policy debate in America, until one day when it suddenly wasn't. Republicans perhaps didn't change their mind, so much as they just stopped talking about it. That long period of strategic ambiguity is now ending.

As recently as 2004, Republicans made opposition to gay marriage a top-tier cause (some conservatives believe it saved George W. Bush's re-election). But as public opinion began to turn, Democrats reached a new consensus in support of gay marriage and started going on offense.

After the Supreme Court declared a Constitutional right to marriage in 2015, Republicans all but abandoned the issue. Which seems like smart politics: Polls show strong majorities of voters (71% in the most recent Gallup poll) favor marriage equality.

What's odd about this evolution, though, is that at no point during the long journey from Republicans warning that "activist judges" would destroy "traditional marriage" to the RNC tweeting Pride Month celebrations did the party ever acknowledge their position shifted. Few prominent Republicans explicitly said they had changed their mind from the Bush era. The national GOP platform still opposes gay marriage.

In the run-up to Tuesday's vote, many Republicans protested that the issue was irrelevant, because, they said, the court has signaled it's unlikely to get involved and the country has long moved on to other fights.

"It’s a pure messaging bill," Senator Bill Cassidy, R-La., said. "I mean, it’s obviously settled law right now."

Notably, though, Cassidy did not tell reporters how he would vote should the bill reach the Senate, where it's genuinely unclear if there's enough support to send it to President Biden's desk. That's in line with most right-leaning criticism of the bill, which has typically taken the form of a pundit's prediction about what courts might do, rather than an affirmative position.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to say on Tuesday whether he'd vote for a bill to codify marriage equality. That he was even unsure was news in itself, since he led Republican attempts to un-codify same-sex marriage for years, but it speaks to the lack of specificity on this issue since 2015.

We’re now at an inflection point, though, after which it will no longer be possible to dismiss the issue as yesterday's news. As the House GOP's still-strong opposition to marriage equality confirms, there's legitimate reason to question the assumption that gay marriage is a settled issue.

In addition to the court's new makeup, politicians are returning to LGBT culture wars more than at any point since 2004, with fights over everything from transgender participation in sports to drag queen story hours. While there are legitimate policy challenges at play, the spirit of the debates has taken a turn, with anti-gay "groomer" slurs from the 1970s making a comeback.

It's not hard to see how politicians looking to distinguish themselves in this arena might turn to gay marriage, perhaps with the goal of getting a new ban in front of the court. Take Texas, where the state GOP reaffirmed its opposition to gay marriage in their party platform just last month. Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, have, in recent months, renewed their criticism of the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized same-sex marriage. Only one Texas Republican in the House, Tony Gonzales, voted "yes" on protections for gay marriage yesterday. Attorney General Ken Paxton has said he’d defend a state anti-sodomy law in court.

There is a chance to defuse these concerns. If Republican complaints are correct that Democrats are fear-mongering to win elections, it should be easy enough to enshrine marriage rights into law and prove to Americans the issue is settled beyond a doubt. If they pass on the opportunity, though, nobody should be surprised if Americans decide their rights have been thrown back into question.