WASHINGTON — For the second time in two days, the Supreme Court struck at the heart of the Republican Party platform.
Yet the response to Friday’s ruling to give same-sex couples the right to marry was mild in comparison with the outrage that followed the high court’s decision Thursday to uphold President Barack Obama’s health care law. Friday’s ruling instead drew tepid responses from several Republicans who, in many cases, would like that issue to fade away.
The sharp contrast highlights the political challenges for a Republican Party searching for a winning playbook in 2016.
The GOP’s presidential class is ready to bet big their opposition to Obama’s health care law will resonate with voters. But facing a seismic shift in public opinion on gay marriage, several of the party’s most ambitious appear ready to turn the page on a social issue the GOP used for a generation to motivate its most passionate voters to turn out at the polls.
Perhaps no Republican presidential candidate better illustrated the contrast than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was ready with a fiery statement and a video, “This is not the end of the fight,” to decry the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the Affordable Care Act.
In a fundraising email, Bush warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton would offer “more of the same.” `’That is why I need you to make a one time-emergency contribution of $50, $25 or $10 to my campaign to ensure that NEVER happens.”
A day later, after the marriage ruling, Bush made no such fundraising pitch, offering only a one-paragraph statement. States should be allowed to make the decision, he said, adding, “I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments.”
Polls show what’s motivating the temperance of some in the GOP: Americans are now more likely than not to support same-sex marriage, with some surveys showing as many as 6 in 10 in favor. The shift over 10 years has been dramatic. Polling by the Pew Research Center found support for same-sex marriage growing from 36 percent in 2005 to 57 percent in a poll conducted in May.
While most Republicans remain opposed to same-sex marriage, 59 percent of those between age 18 and 34 supported marriage rights for gay couples in Pew’s most recent poll.
To be sure, several Republicans running for president condemned the court’s same-sex marriage decision and pledged to continue to fight. “Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who entered the race this week.
“It doesn’t settle anything,” National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said in an interview before the ruling, comparing the gay marriage decision to the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade. “It’s just like Roe. Do you think Roe settled the abortion debate?”
The anti-gay marriage organization has given each Republican presidential contender two weeks to return a signed pledge that, among other things locks candidates into supporting a constitutional amendment “that protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
Some members of the GOP field signaled their openness to that idea on Friday. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called Friday’s ruling “a grave mistake” and said “the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage.”
Still, several GOP candidates – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Bush among them – have said they would not support such an amendment. Rubio was also among those who tried to stake a middle ground on Friday.
“While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law,” Rubio said, echoing a statement by Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to enter the 2016 contest in the coming weeks. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said, “The governor has always believed in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, but our nation’s highest court has spoken and we must respect its decision.”
Unlike the marriage issue, Republican opposition to health care needs no qualifiers. The first paid advertisement in response to the court’s health care ruling came within an hour from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch.
“We’ve been fighting this law for six years, and we’re going to make sure it stays right on the front burner,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “We’ve always known repeal would be a long-term effort. We’ve never counted on the courts to do it for us. This law is fatally flawed and unpopular, so it makes perfect sense for candidates to keep talking about how it’s harming people.”