So clever of BuzzFeed to drop this today, with Bush set to sit down with Sean Hannity onstage at CPAC in 24 hours for Q&A. Think this story might come up? Think it’ll be talked about tonight at the local bars among conservatives already suspicious of Jeb’s ideological leanings?
There’s more evidence here than I can fairly excerpt of how strongly Bush’s top advisors feel about this issue, so you’ll have to read the whole thing. Here’s the key bit, though:
But inside Bush’s orbit, some believe his personal feelings on the subject may have evolved beyond his on-the-record statements. Three Republican supporters who have recently spoken with Bush as he’s blitzed the GOP fundraising circuit told BuzzFeed News they came away with the impression that on the question of marriage equality, he was supportive at best and agnostic at worst…
If, as many observers expect, the Supreme Court rules this June to extend marriage rights to all same-sex couples nationwide, some of Bush’s pro-gay donors are hoping he will use the moment to fully pivot toward an embrace of marriage equality — turning himself into the first serious pro-gay GOP presidential candidate.
“His thinking appears to have evolved,” said David Aufhauser, a former senior Treasury official who co-hosted a fundraiser for Bush earlier this month in Virginia. Aufhauser, well known in GOP circles for his gay rights advocacy, stressed that he doesn’t speak for Bush, but contended that the candidate would benefit from opening up about how he now views the marriage issue. He suggested Bush deliver a high-profile “statement of principles” following the Court’s decision this summer, pledging to “remove all barriers of state discrimination,” discussing how he “abhors hate based on orientation,” and also championing strong protections for churches.
If handled right, Aufhauser argued, Bush could draw a sharp contrast between himself and other Republicans — and in a twist that would defy the chatter about the generational divide in the GOP field, he could even succeed in siphoning off younger voters from opponents like Rand Paul or Marco Rubio. “When the governor speaks on this issue, I’m confident people like my kids — a demographic the party needs — will find him to be thoughtful and embracing,” he said.
His campaign manager, chief strategist, and communications director all support legalizing gay marriage. His base, the GOP’s wealthy donor class, is famously closer to the left on cultural issues like immigration and gay marriage than it is to the right. Jeb himself has told every reporter who’ll listen that he’ll campaign in the primaries with the same message he’d take to the general election, which is his way of saying that he’s a loud-and-proud centrist and won’t pretend otherwise to flatter the right. Put all that together and you have the Republican version of Obama’s 2008 stance on gay marriage: Here again we have a guy facing a socially conservative electorate and professing (for the moment) to be anti-SSM when everything about him, culturally and politically, suggests he feels otherwise. This has suddenly become the ultimate test of whether Jeb’s serious about his no-pandering strategy. Will he cop to being at least “undecided” about gay marriage? Will he go so far as to come out in favor, which would blow up the primaries by parachuting this issue right into the middle of the debates?
There’s a strategic argument for doing so. Grassroots righties are long gone from the Jeb 2016 camp so he’s not losing any tea partiers by declaring himself in favor of SSM. Meanwhile, if you believe the polls, there are plenty of Republicans in the center and the center-right who quietly support legalizing gay marriage and might be impressed by Jeb running against his own party’s orthodoxy in backing it. As BuzzFeed notes, young Republicans in particular might take notice, which could cause headaches for someone like Rubio who’s eager to pitch himself as the future and Jeb as old news. Endorsing gay marriage would also earn Jeb some friends in the media, with whom he has a complicated relationship right now. The media obviously favors him in the primaries against right-wingers but they also worry that, because of his fundraising, he’s the strongest GOP challenger for Hillary. They’ll hit him hard in the general, as they always do with the GOP nominee, to protect their own side, but they might not hit Jeb as hard if he sides with them against conservatives on their pet social issue. They’ve turned that into a litmus test for decency and progressive thinking among politicians, so for Jeb to join their camp on it would necessarily complicate their narrative that the Republican nominee has malevolent retrograde designs on America.
The strategic risk to backing SSM isn’t that it’ll cost Jeb tea-party votes, which, as I say, are long gone, it’s that it’ll so alienate social conservatives that they’ll stay home for the general election. Mike Huckabee has said openly in the past that as soon as the GOP embraces gay marriage, he’s gone. Not all social cons will feel that way but a few hundred thousand spread across swing states are potentially the difference between winning and losing. And for someone like Jeb, because of his other heresies on immigration and Common Core, a gay-marriage reversal would immolate whatever conservative credibility he has left even with righties who may not feel strongly about SSM. The right’s perennial fear of “moderate” Republicans is that they campaign as conservatives and govern as independents. Jeb’s not even campaigning as a conservative, really, raising the question of what he’d govern as. Add an endorsement of gay marriage to that mix and the attack line that he’s really just a conservative Democrat will gain traction even with people who’ve ignored it so far. The best-case scenario for him is that the party splits sharply in two, with people like Huckabee and Santorum eventually lining up behind a more viable social conservative like Walker or Rubio, and Jeb narrowly wins the nomination with centrist support only to find there’s no way to repair the rift. But maybe that’s the hidden virtue of a Jeb campaign — like no one else in the field, he heightens the contradictions between the party’s centrists and its conservative base. Why continue to paper over them in the name of nominating people like McCain and Romney whom no one’s real thrilled with? Let’s get this out in the open.