History moved at warp speed last week.
The beginning of the week found virtually everyone agreeing the Confederate battle flag should no longer fly near the South Carolina capital. Quickly, a local event surged into a national crusade to end commemorations glorifying secession and its accompaniments — slavery and white supremacy.
Then, on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act; the next day the high court made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
The dizzying pace of change obviously benefits Democrats, who have long called for the removal of Confederate symbols, supported national health insurance, and backed equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. But the apparent leftward shift of public policy and opinion offers the Republican Party an opening to shed losing battles and increasingly lost causes — if the party is smart enough to seize the opportunities.
Many Republican leaders privately view the court decision on Obamacare as a blessing and a disaster averted. If the decision had gone the other way, at least six million Americans living in states that refused to create their own exchanges would have lost federally subsidized health insurance. Congressional Republicans would have been under intense pressure to provide at least a temporary fix to prevent so many people from suddenly losing their insurance policies. Governors and legislators in red states would have felt public heat to create state exchanges to enable their citizens who cannot afford the high premiums of health policies to keep their subsidized insurance. Republican politicians — had the court overturned the ACA — would have been caught between satisfying low-income beneficiaries of the act and their conservative base, which detests Obamacare.
If Republicans are smart, they will seize the opportunities provided by the attacks on Confederate symbols and the approval of gay marriage. Some conservatives will, of course, want to keep the symbols and rail against same-sex marriage, but for others this past week offers a chance to wipe the slate clean before the nation focuses on the 2016 presidential election. Most Republican leaders recognize the folly of contesting the next election on those social and cultural issues on which polls show the party out of step with the American public. The probable removal of the Confederate battle flag and the decision approving gay marriage provide the GOP with the chance to unburden itself of the issues of race and sexuality.
“Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era,” said David Frum, a conservative writer. “The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues. And Republicans can say, ‘Whether you’re gay, black or a recent migrant to our country, we are going to welcome you as a fully cherished member of our coalition.’ ”
Frum and other Republicans would prefer to contest future elections on differences with Democrats over economic policy and national security. That may not be easy, as all the Republican presidential candidates criticized the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Some tempered their comments. Jeb Bush said the court had erred, but he urged respect of all couples who make “lifetime commitments.” Senator Marco Rubio opposed the decision, but said, “We live in a republic and must abide by the law.” Bush and Rubio invoked GOP boilerplate on protecting the religious views of the opponents of gay marriage.
But other Republicans threatened to mount the barricades. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, said “some cowardly politicians will wave the white flag,” but he would fight against gay marriage. “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court,” he said. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker vowed to push for a constitutional amendment allowing states to prohibit same-sex marriage. “No one wants to live in a country where the government coerces people to act in opposition to their conscience,” he said. “We will continue to fight for the freedoms of all Americans.” And Texas Senator Ted Cruz promised to make the court decision “front and center” of his presidential campaign.
Bush and Rubio may be eager to move away from the cultural wars, but even they recognize the tactical problems Republican presidential candidates face in having to compete for conservative votes in primary and caucus states, then pivot in the general election to broaden the Republican vote by appealing to more socially and culturally tolerant groups. “Our candidates running in a primary are put in a little bit of a box by the events of this week, but at the same time, it does change the landscape for the general election, which is a blessing,” said Carl Forti, a Republican strategist who has worked on presidential races. “I’m glad I’m not on a campaign and don’t have to advise my candidate on how to navigate those three issues [Confederate symbols, Obamacare, and gay marriage] this week, because the answers for the primary and the general are radically different.”
Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and briefly presidential candidate in 2012, believes even the most conservative Republican candidates can finesse the cultural divide by saying gay marriage is now the law of the land. “Whether the presidential candidates agree or disagree with the results of all this, it allows them to say these issues have been settled and move on to things that offer more of a political home-field advantage,” he said.
For that to happen, Republicans must stop being what Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — now a 2016 candidate — once called “the stupid party.”