Until this morning, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that the New Jersey Supreme Court's unanimous decision to allow same-sex marriages to begin today -- even as it accepted Gov. Chris Christie's appeal of a lower court's ruling, scheduling arguments for January -- was a win-win, politically, for Christie. As the thinking went, Christie would get gay marriage off the table now, and if he ran for the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2016, he could tell social conservatives in the GOP that he fought the good fight and did everything he could to stop gay marriage.
But now he has surrendered completely, withdrawing his appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He can no longer tell gay marriage opponents that he fought the good fight, because he ran from the last major battle waving a white flag.
That's not to say that it would have been the win-win that some pundits thought it would be anyway. And perhaps Christie realized that. The pundits' thinking ignored the fact that evangelicals and tea party supporters, who've aligned with one another on many issues (including Obamacare, taxes and gay marriage) and, combined, account for over two thirds of the GOP's often strident base, are never satisfied with simply "fighting the good fight" and moving on, as we have just seen. The thinking also seemed to forget the fact that the strategy didn't work for Mitt Romney, who, as a governor from a true-blue liberal Northeastern state where gay marriage happened on his watch, even as he claimed to oppose it, was in an identical situation.
Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts as a moderate, promising to expand rights for gays and lesbians, only to shift dramatically as he set his eye on the presidency, doing everything he could to convince evangelicals that he would stop gay marriage. He fought for a state constitutional ban after the high court approved gay marriage, and he tried to use an arcane law to stop the marriages even after the court decreed that the marriages should begin. He debased gay parents and their children, trying to keep birth certificates of children born to gay parents from denoting that both parents were of the same gender. And he vowed that, as president, he would pass a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage.
But even with all that, many social conservatives were not convinced. They wrote columns warning about the judges whom Romney had put on the courts in Massachusetts, and about the openly gay people whom he'd hired in his administration. Romney responded to these suspicions by further tacking to the right throughout the primaries, where Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann stirred the faithful. Evangelicals did turn out for him in the end in the general election, but it came at the cost of independents and Democrats who saw him as too extreme or just not standing for much.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), both potential presidential contenders, have said that they're opposed to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, desiring to leave it to the states, though they're opposed to gay marriage themselves. It's hard to know how that big shift for GOP candidates will fly with social conservatives during primaries in 2016. But even if these voters concede the federal amendment and accept that states should make their own decisions, it's unlikely that they'd trust Chris Christie, whether or not he fought this to the highest court in his state.
The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision to allow the marriages to begin pending Christie's appeal was unanimous and included three Republican justices, one of whom Christie put on the bench. As Christie's statement noted, it's clear that the court was going to rule in favor of marriage equality. And he actually attempted to put an openly gay man who supports gay marriage on the high court, raising the ire of anti-gay-marriage crusader Maggie Gallagher (but the nomination was blocked by Democrats in the Senate, in part because the nominee said he'd recuse himself from cases dealing with same-sex marriage).
Even as a majority of Americans in most polls now support marriage equality, social conservatives will likely be asking for much more of the 2016 GOP candidates than they asked in 2012. With the Defense of Marriage Act struck down, those gays and lesbians who live in states without marriage equality are now able to get many of the federal benefits of marriage if they get married in a marriage equality state. That's solely because the Obama administration has directed the IRS, the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies to give the federal benefits of marriage to all legally gay married couples, no matter where they live. And several states that ban marriage for gays and lesbians are fighting the Pentagon, refusing benefits to married gay and lesbian couples in the National Guard. Will social conservative activists demand that the GOP presidential candidates pledge, if elected, to roll back the recognition of federal marriage rights in states without gay marriage?
Christie may have realized that fighting this to the end wouldn't have made much of a difference and that he'd have to go much further, which ultimately hurt Romney in the general election. He may just be hoping that the issue dissipates in the GOP -- where polls show that gay marriage is still opposed by a solid majority -- as much as it has in the larger electorate. That seems unlikely, as the GOP has done nothing to reach out to the voters it alienated in 2012, only bowing further to extremists. But time will tell.