Over the past week or so, we've seen two strong hints as to how the Republican party will handle social issues going forward—the combined effect of which is to offer reminder of how thoroughly political coalitions and party power dynamics can change over time.
The first came from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who said at least weekend's Values Voters Summit, the annual confab of the GOP's socially conservative wing, that gay marriage, long a social conservative priority, is "not an issue. In fact," she said, "it's boring."
Since then, Bachman has downplayed the remarks, noting her continuing "belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman." The two statements aren't actually inconsistent, however. Even if Bachmann, who has in the past aggressively supported legal prohibitions on same-sex marriage, maintains her personal opposition to same sex marriage, that doesn't mean she's making an issue of it anymore. Judging by the scant mentions of gay marriage at the Summit, neither are many other Republicans.
The second came from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who, in response to a question about whether Plan B should be legal, said on Tuesday: "I am not opposed to birth control… Plan B is taking two birth-control pills in the morning and two in the evening, and I am not opposed to that." Paul, a sponsor of the Life Begins at Conception Act, extended his remarks to suggest that the vast majority of Republicans would be with him. "Plan B is taking birth control… I am not against birth control, and I don't know many Republicans who would be indicating that they are against birth control."
Not surprisingly, that remark angered Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the Values Voters Summit, who tweeted that Plan B's function "is to create conditions hostile to human life." But Paul hasn't softened his stance. Instead, his office expressed dismay with Perkins' criticism. An adviser to the senator told Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast that Paul's camp is "fuming," especially after Paul spoke about his opposition to abortion at least week's Summit. "[Perkins] reaches out when he needs a speaker for his conferences, but apparently not when he wants to attack Sen. Paul for no good reason," the adviser said to Nuzzi.
What these incidents suggest is that while GOP opposition to abortion remains strong, and is likely to stay strong for the foreseeable future, the Republican party wars over same-sex marriage and contraception are essentially over—and social conservatives lost.
This is not to say that skirmishes will not continue, that the debates won't persist at some level, perhaps even loudly at times. But it's clear enough where the arguments are going, and what the outcomes are likely to be. The GOP probably won't come out as the party of gay rights and the pill in time for the 2016 election, but those issues won't be front and center. If anything, judging by the Summit, most Republican politicians are likely to try to avoid talking about gay marriage whenever possible. And when it comes to contraception, many will emphasize support for greater access by making it available over-the-counter.
The causes behind the Republican party's shift are complex—changing social norms, the shifting demographics of the electorate, and the decline of religiosity in American life are all factors. But rather than trace the reasons for the transformation, I think it's worth dwelling briefly on how rapid and drastic the shift on these issues, especially gay marriage, has been, and what that shift suggests about the stability of internal power dynamics in political parties.
Go back just a decade, and contraception was barely on the radar as a national political debate. And far from declaring same-sex marriage a boring non-issue, Republicans were hoping that opposition would bolster their political prospects.
In 2004, the Bush White House believed that opposition to same-sex marriage would help to get out the vote. "To the degree it energizes people who might otherwise not vote, it tends to help us," Bush's campaign guru Karl Rove said of a ballot initiative intended to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. There were 11 such measures that year, and Bush eventually went so far as to propose a national constitutional amendment restricting same-sex marriage. (Whether or not the strategy worked as well as intended is a matter of some debate, but that was very much the animating idea.)
This, of course, was around the same time that Rove was famously imagining a "permanent Republican majority," an unbeatable GOP for years to come. And that majority was to be built in no small part on social conservatives and their strength of their vote, which was critical in 2004.
Certainly, this was the understanding within segments of the media at the time. Rove drove Bush to election with "an army of Christian foot soldiers," declared a 2005 PBS Frontline documentary. That same report quoted Dana Milbank of The Washington Post saying that "evangelicals didn't just come out and vote for him, they were his campaign." The thesis of the documentary, explained by the announcer in its introduction, was that "it took 40 years, but [Rove] changed the political landscape" in his quest for endless Republican victories.
This was the widely-if-not-universally assumed future of the Republican party: electoral dominance as far as the eye could see, driven by the votes of committed social conservatives.
A decade later, essentially the opposite is not only true, but obviously so. The Republican party is weak nationally, and the conventional wisdom is that it will remain weak for years to come. Meanwhile, the influence of social conservatives has dwindled to the point where a likely presidential candidate such as Rand Paul does not back down when criticized by a prominent social conservative leader, and even hardcore social conservatives will barely discuss an issue—same-sex marriage—that just a decade ago was assumed to be a surefire political winner for the GOP.
All of which is to say that the factors that look likely to push a party into permanent majority status can just as easily dissolve and become weaknesses in a relatively short time, and that the factions that look certain to maintain a heavy influence within a party may not have as tight a grip as widely believed.
This is a lesson for Republicans, obviously, as they attempt rethink and reshape the party image in a post-Bush, post-Obama era. But it's also a cautionary tale for Democrats, many of whom now project a similar sense of certainty and confidence about the party's chances at political dominance going forward—and a reminder that victories which may initially seem inevitable can quickly and unexpectedly turn into certain losses.