Rand Paul’s same-sex marriage balancing act

Photo: Rand Paul. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr.

Photo: Rand Paul. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr.

During an event in Iowa Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul fielded a question harkening back to the 2004 presidential campaign: Is he in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman?

“I’m in favor of the concept,” said Paul, a likely contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. “I am in favor of traditional marriage and really I think that’s been the foundation of civilization for thousands of years.”

Paul, dressed in his signature navy blazer and blue jeans with a red tie featuring husks of corn, added that the “loss of the idea of marriage is really probably the leading cause of poverty in our country, in the sense that if you have kids before you’re married your chance of being in poverty is three or four times that of anyone else.”

But, the Kentucky senator known for his libertarian views on a number of key Republican issues continued, marriage is an issue better left up to the states.

“As far as whether we should do it at the federal level or the state level, I don’t want to register my guns in Washington or my marriage. And that may not please everybody but historically our founding fathers didn’t register their marriage in Washington, they registered it locally at the court house,” Paul said, according to a recording of the event from Radio Iowa. “I’d rather see it be a local issue, not a federal issue.”

Paul’s support for allowing the states to determine whether to allow same-sex couples to wed is nothing new. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their decision in the Windsor case, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act defining for federal purpose marriage as between a man and a woman, Paul told ABC News he thought the decision was appropriate and that the issue should be left to the states.

“As a country we can agree to disagree,” Paul said. “As a Republican Party, that’s kind of where we are as well. The party is going to have to agree to disagree on some of these issues.”

But it was Paul’s statement that he is “in favor of the concept” of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman that immediately drew attention, especially after the publication one day later of a New York Times Magazine article in which Paul reiterated statements from a year ago that Republicans must agree to disagree.

“The party can’t become the opposite of what it is,” Paul said. “If you tell people from Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia, ‘You know what, guys, we’ve been wrong, and we’re gonna be the pro-gay-marriage party,’ they’re either gonna stay home or — I mean, many of these people joined the Republican Party because of these social issues. So I don’t think we can completely flip. But can we become, to use the overused term, a bigger tent? I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues. I think the party will evolve. It’ll either continue to lose, or it’ll become a bigger place where there’s a mixture of opinions.”

According to Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, Paul’s comments have proved puzzling. “I can’t decide whether to be disturbed or pleased, so I’ve settled on confused,” Sainz said in a statement. “I just hope that when the libertarian from Kentucky heads to Iowa and New Hampshire, he doesn’t leave his love of liberty at home.”

Democrats also went on the attack. In an email sent to reporters, the Democratic National Committee’s press shop accused Paul of pandering to his conservative audience. “Rand Paul says he’s a new kind of Republican and a new kind of politician,” the email stated. “But in reality, he’s trying to have it both ways by appeasing the right wing base while paying lip service to constituencies Republicans have long ignored on issues they care about.”

Paul’s office did not respond to repeated requests to clarify his statements and position.

Paul certainly isn’t the only national GOP leader to express support for allowing states to define marriage. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has expressed opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. Nevertheless, the national platform of Paul’s party calls for amending to constitution to ban same-sex marriage and expresses support for DOMA. But that platform was adopted in 2012, before the reelection of the first president to openly endorse same-sex marriage and an unbroken chain of legal wins for marriage equality since the Supreme Court’s June 2013 Windsor decision.

For now, Paul’s punt back to the states is a safe position — and one that, just earlier this summer, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supports. “For me, marriage has always been a matter left to the states and in many of the conversations I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists to work state-by-state,” Clinton told NPR, contradicting the majority of marriage-equality advocates who believe a national resolution must come from the Supreme Court.

“Essentially, Hillary has the same opinion as Rand Paul — that marriage should be something decided on the state level and that one’s personal feelings don’t matter much as long as the federal government is out of the marriage business,” wrote Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, in an email. “What you’re seeing is a coordinated attack by Democrats against a potential GOP Presidential candidate who is putting the ‘big tent’ philosophy so many Republicans are merely opining about into real, tangible practice — and for Democrats, that spells trouble in 2016.”

But the political and legal landscapes are shifting. With same-sex marriage back before the Supreme Court, following the appeal of cases challenging Utah’s and Oklahoma’s respective same-sex marriage bans earlier this week and Friday’s expected appeal of a marriage case in Virginia, it increasingly appears that sooner rather than later the Supreme Court justices will address whether they, like 50 percent of Americans, believe the U.S. Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry.

“The Republican party must move forward on this issue,” Sainz said. “The clock is ticking, three marriage cases have already reached the Supreme Court, and there is no doubt that this issue will cause the GOP enormous pain in 2016 if they don’t engage in a meaningful way, and fast.”

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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