This past weekend was the first event of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign: a forum for would-be candidates to strut their stuff in Iowa, the early testing grounds during the primary/caucus cycle. The event dispelled any lingering belief that the party might tack toward the middle. Instead, it provided a preview of a Republican party that promises to be every bit as homophobic as the party of 2012 and 2008.
To begin with, the forum was hosted by Rep. Steve King, who believes that marriage equality leads to socialism, that homosexuality is a “self-professed” behavior and that President Obama contributed to the end of civilization by making a congratulatory phone call to openly gay NBA player Jason Collins. Instead of shunning King as the loon that he is, his fellow Republicans paid him homage.
What better way than to make opposition to marriage equality a litmus test for being a manly conservative. The candidates tripped all over themselves to outdo one another in their disdain for the right to marry (and, one might add, for reality.) At the forum and in the days leading up to it, the wannabes made it clear that anyone who supports marriage equality is a squish unworthy of the nomination.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality, states can feel free to ignore the decision. Disputing the “notion of judicial supremacy,” Huckabee basically argued in favor of nullification, last used by the slave-holding South to ignore laws it didn’t like. Huckabee has already said that conservative Christians will leave the GOP if the party caves on marriage equality.
Not to be outdone, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal threw his support behind a constitutional amendment “to allow states to continue to define marriage.”
Jindal was echoing Ted Cruz, the loathsome senator from Texas (thanks to gay billionaire Peter Thiel), who plans to introduce an amendment in Congress. Cruz is intent on making himself the standard against which others have to measure themselves. “Talk is cheap,” he told the audience at King’s forum. “One of the most important roles that men and women will play here in Iowa is to say ‘don’t talk, show me.’”
Even Chris Christie, who likes to portray himself as a realist, used his opposition to marriage equality in New Jersey to establish his credibility with the Iowa audience. The problem is that most conservatives believe that Christie threw in the towel on marriage equality instead of fighting to the bitter end. Opposition isn’t good enough. You need to be willing to die on that hill.
Also showing up for King’s jamboree were Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, who solidified their reputations as homophobes the last time around, and Ben Carson, who has decided that being a homophobe makes him qualified for the Oval Office.
Noticeably absent from the forum was Jeb Bush, the great establishment hope who is just a moderate homophobe by GOP standards, and Mitt Romney, about which nothing more need be said. Amazingly, in the face of all evidence that he’s a lousy candidate, Romney seems convinced that he should enter the fray yet again.
The fact that there are so many candidates is a sign of just how much disarray the party is in. There is no candidate who can satisfy all the factions. The Tea Party wing won’t settle for anything less than a true believer, which is a recipe for losing. The establishment wants a winner, which means someone who looks moderate by comparison to the rest of the field. But the ultra-conservative wing of the party calls the shots in the primaries, and they believe Romney and before him John McCain lost specifically because they were moderates.
Which means we’re in for a replay of 2012, in which laughable candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich managed to hang on for months while the establishment choice, Romney, failed to close the deal with voters. The fringe candidates will keep pulling the establishment candidates to the right. And what better issue to use than marriage equality? It fits all the requirements. It’s topical, it appeals to Christian voters, it revives nostalgia for the culture wars. And it’s a sign of just how unmoored from reality the GOP continues to be.