'Leave It to the States': Admirable Moderation, Or Cowardly Cop-out?

As everyone knows, opinions on same-sex marriage have been changing rapidly, which also means that the positions of politicians have to change to keep up. Now that pretty much every Democrat running for anything is in favor of marriage equality, they're done changing. Republicans, on the other hand, are going to have to keep tweaking their stance, confronted by the almost impossible challenging of signaling their open-mindedness to general election voters while not alienating a conservative base that, for a while anyway, is still opposed to gay people getting married.

So what's the answer to that problem? "Leave it to the states." Is that an admirable bit of live-and-let-live, let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom approach to governing, or is it a cowardly cop-out? It's kind of both.

It wasn't too long ago that Republicans were advocating a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But few people in the GOP mainstream say that anymore. If you want to know where the axis of the party is, one of the best ways is to look at the people who want to get that party's voters to make them the nominee for president. And they all seem to agree. Rand Paul thinks the marriage question should be left to the states. Rick Perry thinks being gay is like being an alcoholic, but he also says, leave marriage to the states. Bobby Jindal says we ought to leave it to the states. Jeb Bush is of the opinion that it should be left to the states. Scott Walker has an idea: Leave it to the states. Marco Rubio says, you guessed it, leave it to the states. Ted Cruz even has legislation that would leave it to the states.

Obviously, if you think that any federal law on marriage would produce marriage equality, leaving it to the states means that your preferred outcome can at least prevail in the states where Republicans dominate. And this is fast becoming the prevailing opinion even among rank-and-file Republicans. This poll just out from Marist College and McClatchy asks this question, and shows the party divide:

In this case, Republicans are trying to hold on to whatever they can salvage of the status quo. But I'm guessing we'll be hearing the same thing from Democrats on the issue of marijuana legalization, even though the opposite is true of them: They'd like to chip away at the status quo, but would rather not take the risk of trying to do it on the federal level. On that issue, leaving it to the states isn't holing up in the Alamo, it's gaining ground piece by piece.

But in either case, it's a safe harbor for politicians, a way of saying, "If you should happen to disagree with my personal opinion, don't worry, because I won't get in your way. Or alternatively, "Whatever you believe, I might be with you." Which is exactly what they need at the moment, a way of not taking too much of a risk when you know that your position is probably going to have to change in a few years to catch up to public opinion.

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