Why You Should Thank a Member of the Tea Party

I am delighted, delighted that President Obama has decided to express his support for marriage equality.*

Thank the Tea Party.

The Tea Party has crystallized the focus on the Republican party on ideological purity to such an extreme that Obama really has no hope of gaining any Republican support. Just think back to Bill Clinton’s expression of support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the election year of his second term as president. There was a having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too statement if we’ve ever seen one. Do we really think that Clinton had personally “long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriage” while also being strongly committed to passing sexual-orientation anti-discrimination law? If so, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Rather, Clinton’s acceptance of DOMA had a lot to do with his other moves to the middle: in 1996, moderation was an attractive thing to a lot of voters. Clinton’s 1996 victory was a referendum on the Gingrich-led Contract With America that forced moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters to choose whether they preferred the middle or the hard-right approach. At that time, there was enough of an active moderate Republican electorate that Clinton’s gamble paid off.

In 2012, this is no longer the case. Just in the past week, the hard-right faction of the Republican party which has become identified with the Tea Party helped oust long-time US Senator Dick Lugar during his primary in Indiana. Moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe left as well this year — either for principled reasons or to avoid a similar fate, depending on whom you ask. The Tea Party has ensured that President Obama has received no benefits for reaching towards the middle whenever he attempted to do so by punishing any Republicans participating in these compromises. Now, in his Bill-Clinton-in-1996 moment, Obama has apparently finally decided that he just doesn’t get the same return from triangulating anymore.

Of course, it certainly isn’t the Tea Party alone which has made this shift possible. Opinion and law on marriage equality has shifted dramatically over the course of the last ten years. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a great timeline that really brings home how much legal and legislative action there has been on this subject, from the mid-decade fever of mini-DOMAs to the legal and legislative victories of the last couple of years. The sides on this issue are ramping up because this is an active area of opinion change, with many people’s opinions apparently up for grabs. The fact that this is the case, and the fact there is a large generation-gap on this issue, is a de facto loss for the heterosexual-marriage-only status quo.  However, it’s fun to consider that there are occasionally some benefits to a radicalizing Republican party – and I think this might be my favorite one.


*Contra my previous post, I really am thinking about November. In Maine, the battle for marriage equality will become a larger and larger issue moving towards the fall ballot, since Mainers will be attempting to legalize same-sex marriage through the citizens’ initiative process. (Sorry for the link to Ballotpedia – Secretary Summers is apparently too busy with his US Senate candidacy to make sure the state Elections pages are being kept up to date.) “Marriage equality” is such a lovely framing for the more generic “same-sex marriage” and one that I already support with my assistant-professor’s-salary-scale (i.e., small) but heartfelt campaign donations. For the next few months, I will indulge my advocate’s side and sometimes use that framing in my analyses.

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