Platform Puzzles: GOP Won't Embrace Gay Marriage

Family Research Council Action, a leading crusader for social conservative values, is sounding the alarm: Support for gay marriage is creeping dangerously close to the Republican platform.

"Strong voices within the Republican Party would like nothing more than to change the official stance in regards to marriage between one man and one woman," warns a recent e-mail blast from the organization that rattles off a list of alleged heretics topped by former Vice President Dick Cheney and former first lady Laura Bush.

The e-mail promises that donations will be used to send reinforcements to the platform-committee meetings leading up to the Aug. 27 national convention in Tampa, Fla. "Someone has to keep an eye on them," the group avows.

At a time when virtually all Republican-leaning states have banned same-sex marriage, could the GOP be on the verge of embracing gay rights in its sacred platform? No chance. The Family Research Council e-mail is less smoke alarm and more fundraising ploy — as well as a kick in the pants to the conservative grassroots in an election year.

Yet platform battles, even when stirred up by special-interest groups, the opposition party, or the media, often mark important political and cultural mileposts. The dustup over gay marriage is no exception. With President Obama this year becoming the first chief executive to embrace the cause of same-sex marriage, the issue may be eclipsing abortion as the central front in the culture war. And that shift, inevitably, will reverberate through the platform discussions of both parties this year and beyond.

Throughout American history, platform skirmishes have mapped critical shifts in each party's balance of power. The Democrats' abandonment of Prohibition in their 1932 platform, for instance, showed that, behind Franklin D. Roosevelt, the party's urban northern wing had regained the upper hand over its evangelical solid southern one. Conversely, the GOP's abandonment of support for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980 platform signaled that social conservatives had eclipsed coastal moderates as the dominant force in their party.

Platform battles also reflect the particular ideology of that year's nominee, because every standard-bearer tends to stray from the party line on some issues. Republican Bob Dole tried to dilute the party's antiabortion stance in 1996. George W. Bush's moderate positions on immigration reform colored the 2000 and 2004 Republican conventions, while John McCain's apostasies on stem-cell research, campaign finance, and climate change worried conservative activists in 2008.

This year, Mitt Romney has committed himself to unwaveringly conservative positions on social issues (including support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage). But in a sign of the times, the District of Columbia Republican Committee — the equivalent of a state party — last month became the first official voice to call for inserting language into the platform that reads: "Individuals, without regard to sexual orientation, are entitled to full and equal protection under the laws and the Constitution."

The D.C. Republicans don't expect much support for their cause in Tampa. "I don't think there will be a huge push for gay marriage at the convention this year, but we see this as the first spark," said Robert Turner, a member of the District committee and the president of the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for gay rights. "I do see it happening more four years from now and four years after that."

Could Turner be right? Only 23 percent of Republicans supported legalizing gay marriage in a May 29-31 CNN/ORC International poll. But all surveys show support for gay marriage rising among young people. And Tom McClusky of Family Research Council Action worries about what might be called the Ron Paul effect: an increase in the number of convention delegates with libertarian streaks. The D.C. Committee's push, even if it's ahead of its time, isn't likely to be the last try to force Republican platform writers to debate this issue.

If there is a platform shift on gay marriage this year, though, it likely won't come until the Democratic convention opens on Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C. Currently, the Democratic platform calls for equality and opposes discriminatory measures but stops short of endorsing same-sex marriage. But with Obama's embrace of gay marriage — and the same CNN poll showing that more than two-thirds of Democrats and exactly three-fifths of independents back the idea — that  language does not satisfy leading advocates. "We think it's important to say the words, for the platform to be clear and say what a majority of Democrats support," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a gay-advocacy group. "It's important for the party to get there."

Wolfson's group began agitating to include support for gay marriage in the platform even before Obama's recent seal of approval brought its goal within reach. Freedom to Marry has secured support from 22 senators (strangely, several Democrats from red-leaning and swing states aren't on the list!) and four former party chiefs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are on board. So is the chairman of the 2012 convention, Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa.

The vast majority of voters will never read the fine print, or even the bold headlines, of their party's platform. But activists on the left and right recognize it as a useful yardstick in their larger effort to tilt parties toward their causes. "For those of us who work with candidates and elected officials, the platform sets a standard to hold them to," McClusky says. "It comes down to accountability. We think it's important to be very exact in the wording." Which is why advocates on both sides of the gay-marriage debate will be watching every clause and comma when the party platform writers hunker down this summer.