Scott Walker’s Gay Marriage Evolution: What Explains It?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Like many Americans, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has softened on the issue of same-sex marriage. Going back to 2005, he was a staunch supporter of traditional marriage, and as recently as 2010, he reportedly “opposed a new state law that allows gay couples to register with counties to get certain benefits, such as hospital visitation rights.” But his views have shifted.

Around March of 2013, Walker started suggesting that opposition to gay marriage was “generational,” and that it was wiser for Republicans to focus on economic issues. And just this week, after the Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on on the decision striking down Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban, his administration announced they would recognize same sex marriages, going back to June.

So what accounts for this dramatic shift that took place in the three years between 2010 and 2013?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I have theories…

Perhaps he, like many observers, believes this is a done deal — that resistance is futile. Sometimes, as Kenny Rogers taught us, you gotta know when to hold ’em / know when to fold ’em.” Maybe this is the kind of compromise that has to be made in order to elect a president who will otherwise govern as a conservative.

And/or maybe it’s simply a political calculation. Seeing where Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, et al., are on the issue, and where the nation is heading, Walker might be wisely positioning himself as a more electable mainstream presidential candidate.

… Or maybe I’ve got this backwards. Maybe instead of assuming he’s shifting positions now, maybe he was always ambivalent about the issue, but felt he had to pander to social conservatives for political reasons. Maybe this is the real Scott Walker, and that was him doing what he had to do to get elected then.

Regardless, Walker now seems to be attempting to avoid the issue, and — when that’s not possible a). suggesting it’s a settled matter, and/or b). that the federal government shouldn’t have been involved in the institution of marriage to begin with. This one irks me, perhaps partly because it is essentially the Republican version of the defensive “safe, legal, and rare” argument pro-choice Democrats marshaled during the 80s and 90s when they claimed to be personally against abortion, but also against the government telling people what to do.

But maybe this is where the savvy Republicans will end up. As HotAir’s Allahpundit (writing about Walker) pondered back in June: “Is this going to be the party line for Republican candidates in 2016? ‘I oppose gay marriage personally but am powerless to do (or even say!) anything about it.'”

Of course, none of this happens by accident. While shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family helped shift public opinion, and social conservative groups were busy writing memos and holding meetings, groups like the American Unity Fund and the Gill Foundation — and prominent conservatives like Ted Olson — were working at the national, state, and local level to get the camel’s nose under the elephant’s big tent.

Another theory: When all else fails, we might consider the possibility he had a sincere change of heart. Though not widely noted, this summer Walker’s son acted as a witness to the gay marriage of Walker’s wife’s cousin. Maybe, like Rob Portman, personal experiences and relationships have helped shape this evolution. I’m not a huge fan of this phenomenon whereby personal experiences change long-held positions, but most of us probably are influenced by our friends and family. And it is probably worth pondering what home life might be like for Gov. Walker if he were to try to overturn the marriage of the first lady’s cousin.

As you might have guessed, these theories actually transcend Walker. He is, perhaps, merely a microcosm we can use to understand what will likely be an emerging trend amongst Republican politicians. Whatever the reasons for his changing positions, because of the conservative bona fides he earned in his fight against the unions, Walker may be especially well positioned to pull off this maneuver. But I suspect he is helping beat a path others will follow.

UPDATE: Just after hitting “publish,” I saw this tweet: