As same-sex couples began marrying in Florida on Monday, Jeb Bush carved a new path — sort of.
In a statement first reported by The New York Times, the former Republican Florida governor softened his tone on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Although Bush did not go so far as to endorse marriage equality, his statement did not leave it out of the realm of possibility in the future. Bush made no mention of his personal opposition to same-sex marriage and instead expressed a sympathetic understanding of not just those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, but of same-sex couples seeking equality.
“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law,” Bush said. “I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.”
Hours earlier, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel lifted the stay on same-sex marriages in Miami-Dade County — a half day before a federal judge’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage statewide was set to take effect. Zabel then married two of the plaintiff couples.
Bush’s remarks were a departure from comments made a day prior, in which the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate showed little desire to weigh in on the issue. Speaking Sunday to the the Miami Herald after a round of golf, Bush’s indifference to the inevitable was hard to miss. “It ought be a local decision. I mean, a state decision,” he said. “The state decided. The people of the state decided. But it’s been overturned by the courts, I guess.”
Bush could have let those comments stand. Indeed, the view that same-sex marriage should be determined by the states is not only shared by potential GOP presidential candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), but presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. During an interview with NPR this past summer, Clinton said she believes marriage should be left up to the states and expressed her support for state-by-state efforts to secure marriage equality, a position that contradicts the majority of marriage-equality advocates who believe a national resolution must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Bush chose to elaborate further on his views — a move that is encouraging for LGBT-rights advocates as Bush continues to make moves toward a run for president.
“While it’s certainly not where we want him to be, his own conflict is encouraging,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign. “The vast majority of Republican politicians only express their adamant opposition to marriage equality. Bush acknowledges gay married couples and encourages respect for them. The fact that he’s struggling with this issue is something that many Republicans will understand.”
According to Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, Bush’s sympathetic view could prove pivotal as he increasingly appears to be the Republican front-runner in a race that will likely include socially conservative firebrands such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.
“Mr. Bush’s statements on marriage equality show he’s part of the growing movement of common-sense conservatives sympathetic to the desire of committed gay and lesbian couples to live their lives in quiet dignity with the same rights and protections as their straight contemporaries,” said Angelo. “It’s a message that seems to be resonating among the general electorate, and one that can set the standard for 2016 given Mr. Bush’s head start in the race for the GOP nomination.”
Democrats, however, struck back, arguing that sympathy isn’t good enough. “It took Jeb Bush 69 words to say absolutely nothing – 69 words not to say, ‘I support marriage equality.’ Nothing’s changed,” Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “At the end of Bush’s statement, he still had the same position: he opposes the right of gay and lesbian Floridians — and all LGBT Americans — to get married and adopt children. If he wants to tell us he’s changed his position, great. But this was not that statement. It was typical Jeb Bush.”
Since Bush announced on Dec. 16 via Facebook that he would “actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States,” he’s led the pack for the Republican nomination. According to a CNN/ORC poll released late last month, Bush polled at 23 percent among Republican primary voters, with his closest competitor, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trailing 10 points behind at 13 percent. And on Tuesday, Bush launched a social media blitz announcing in videos both in English and Spanish the formation of a political action committee, Right to Rise PAC, intended to support like-minded conservative candidates.
A former governor and the son and brother to two former presidents, Bush is no stranger to political campaigns. He has witnessed firsthand victories and defeats. Speaking last month at a CEO forum sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, Bush said a successful GOP candidate for president must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general, without violating your principles.”
“I kinda know how a Republican can win, whether it’s me or somebody else, and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more willing to be practical,” Bush said. With the arrival of marriage equality to Florida, approximately 70 percent of the nation’s population lives in a marriage-equality state. At this time last year, 105 million Americans lived in one of 16 states, plus D.C., that allowed same-sex couples to marry. One year later, 216 million Americans live in one of 36 states, plus D.C., that permit same-sex marriage. Later this week, on Jan. 9, the Supreme Court justices will meet behind closed doors to consider taking up challenges to same-sex marriage bans in five states: Louisiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
No doubt Bush has an idea which way the wind is blowing, and indeed his statement Monday calling for respect for the rule of law, as well as for the “good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue,” could just as easily apply to a ruling handed down by the Supreme Court ushering in marriage equality nationwide.
As Republicans appear increasingly unwilling to waste political capital fighting same-sex marriage, national resolution might be just what Bush is hoping for.
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