GOP mostly mum on California gay marriage ruling

Liz Goodwin

Almost a week after a federal judge overturned California's Prop. 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, Republicans seem averse to aggressively attacking the decision.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell deftly sidestepped the question of whether gay marriage could be an issue for the midterm elections. "I don't know," he answered at a breakfast with reporters Thursday, then said that government spending and debt are the issues that voters really care about.

Locally, Republicans are also avoiding the issue. California candidates Meg Whitman (running for governor) and Carly Fiorina (running for Senate) have remained relatively silent on the decision, only releasing brief statements after it was handed down. Whitman refused to say whether she would defend Prop. 8 if elected.

It could be that Republicans are backing away from the issue because they don't want to alienate independents, who typically care less about social issues than Democrats and Republicans.

"Every indicator that I have ... generally speaking is that economic growth and job creation are the tandem issues that will be the principal drivers of voter decision at polls," Republican National Committee Political Director Gentry Collins said, according to Politico. "What I'm encouraging candidates to do is go out and run on an economic platform, a jobs platform."

But a focus on jobs and the economy hasn't stopped some Republicans from beating the drum on illegal immigration. Several prominent senators have suggested that the 14th Amendment be reviewed or revoked so that babies born in America aren't automatically granted citizenship. So why isn't gay marriage being used as a wedge issue too?

One answer could be that the lawyer who argued in favor of overturning Proposition 8, Ted Olson, is a respected conservative whom President George W. Bush appointed solicitor general. He makes for a pretty convincing spokesman for the cause of gay marriage. There's no comparable figure making the broader case against gay marriage — one who could span the bridge to liberals.

In an interview with FOX News' Chris Wallace, the former U.S. solicitor general handily refuted Wallace's objections to the judge's decision. Wallace asked why the ban was overturned if a majority of Californians voted for it, and why gay marriage couldn't be left to the states to decide. "Would you like Fox's right to free press put up to a vote and say well, if five states approved it, let's wait till the other 45 states do?" Olson said. "These are fundamental constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees FOX News and you, Chris Wallace, the right to speak."

[The "slippery slope" question: If gay marriage is allowed, why not polygamy?]

By the end of the interview, Wallace said: "I don't understand how you ever lost a case in the Supreme Court." You can watch the exchange below; Olson's argument starts just about halfway into the 14-minute clip, at the 7:12 mark:

Still, some conservatives are continuing their charge against gay marriage, attacking as unfit the judge who issued the Prop. 8 ruling.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, said that Judge Vaughn Walker (a Reagan and then Bush appointee) should have recused himself from the case because he is gay. (The San Francisco Chronicle wrote an anonymously sourced item in February saying Walker was gay. The judge hasn't confirmed the report.)

[Judge's personal life debated after gay ruling | Does his orientation matter? A roundup of opinions]

"I think what you have is one judge who thinks he knows — and a district-level judge and an openly homosexual judge at that — who says he knows better than not only 7 million voters in the state of California but voters in 30 states across the nation that have passed marriage amendments," Perkins said.

Olson's co-counsel on the Prop. 8 challenge, D.C. power lawyer David Boies, said Perkins' accusation "appeals to people's fear and prejudice."

Meanwhile, California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, far from disavowing Walker or his ruling, has petitioned to permit gay marriages to resume in California under the Walker decision.

[Photos: Reaction to judge overturning Prop. 8]

If the criticisms of Walker don't pick up more political traction, the national Republican Party may well continue holding its fire on the gay-marriage issue until after the November midterms. That delaying tactic would also permit party leaders to take fuller measure of the drift of public opinion before committing themselves to divisive culture-war tactics ahead of the 2012 elections.

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