April 22, 2009 -- The culture wars are raging. But if we're in the midst of a revolution, it's hardly being televised.
A flurry of state-level activity is dramatically expanding gay marriage in the United States. A court ruling in Iowa and a legislative vote in Vermont made them the third and fourth states to legalize same-sex marriage, and moves are under way for states including New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire to join them soon.
Add to that Obama administration executive orders on stem-cell research and abortion rights, and the last few months have brought victories for social liberals -- and setbacks for social conservatives -- on a scale not seen in decades.
Yet beyond the expected condemnation from conservative leaders, the stunning series of events is notable for how little it's reverberated across the national political landscape.
"It's almost like the silence is deafening," said Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster. "This is the first time in probably 15 years that the social right has really no levers of power, and they are watching their agenda get rolled back."
The national agenda is consumed by the economic crisis, with all of its tentacles. Last week, nationwide grassroots protests offered a sharp critique of President Obama -- but the "tea parties" came together around fiscal issues, not social ones.
The religious right, a force powerful enough to dictate policy direction in Congress and the White House as recently as the Terri Schiavo affair, has shown signs of splintering at the national level.
While social conservatives remain a major part of the GOP, they are losing influence inside and outside the party, said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist.
"The social conservatives don't have the sway that they've had before, because they haven't been very successful running the party the last six years," Galen said. "The libertarian/fiscal conservative wing of the party is proving to be in the ascendancy."
On one level, the relative quiet shouldn't be surprising. The gay-marriage expansions have been happening at the state level, with no direct involvement by Democratic congressional leaders or Obama.
A Conservative Argument for Gay Marriage?
In the wake of the activity in Iowa and Vermont, a coalition called the National Organization for Marriage did launch a TV advertising campaign in targeted states, designed to warn religious voters about the potential impact of gay marriage on their lives.
"They want to bring the issue into my life," says one actor in the ad. "My freedom will be taken away," says another.
Maggie Gallagher, the organization's president and a conservative commentator, said there's no shortage of grassroots conservative anger over the recent moves expanding gay marriage.
That outrage may not be getting much national press attention, but it remains a potent political force, she said.
"It's manufactured moment, this idea that people are ready to give up on the gay-marriage fight," Gallagher said. "In Connecticut, in New Hampshire, in Iowa, the legislators are being flooded with phone calls on this issue. People are not happy with gay marriage."
Gallagher noted that voters continue to support gay-marriage bans, as they did in California last year.
Still, prominent Republican politicians have been much more apt to criticize Obama and national Democrats on fiscal policies and national security than to adopt social conservative causes as rallying cries this year.
Utah's Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. recently came out in favor of civil unions for gay couples, even as he leads one of the nation's most Republican states.
Last week, Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year, sparked a fresh debate inside the Republican Party by publicly calling on the GOP to drop its opposition to gay marriage.
"There is a sound conservative argument to be made for same-sex marriage," Schmidt told the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group. "I'm confident American public opinion will continue to move on the question toward majority support, and sooner or later the Republican Party will catch up to it."
Schmidt's comments are unlikely to prompt a wholesale reexamination of the party's positions on gay rights. Many other party strategists say that Schmidt's prescription would cause short-term electoral disaster for Republicans, since the party's support is rooted in religious and other social conservatives.
GOP Trying to Appeal to Moderate Voters
"That's a sure way to make sure that social conservatives stay home," GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres said of Schmidt's suggestion that the party support gay marriage.
Polling suggests that an overwhelming majority of voters continue to oppose same-sex marriage.
A March CBS News poll found just 33 percent saying they support legalizing gay marriage, with another 27 percent saying they favor civil unions, essentially a marriage equivalent in all but name. That same poll found that only 6 percent of Republicans favor gay marriage.
But, as Schmidt referenced in his speech, there's a big split among age groups. Among younger voters of all political persuasions -- ages 18-45 -- 41 percent said they support gay marriage. Among voters 65 or older, that number drops to just 18 percent.
Even many socially conservative voters realize that the party needs to emphasize different aspects of its platform to appeal to moderate voters, Ayres said. That leaves the Republican Party rebuilding itself along economic lines.
"The distinctions drawn there are likely to be more beneficial to the party," Ayres said.
"It changes the emphasis," he said. "With people so concerned about losing their jobs, their healthcare, their retirement savings, it's hard to break through if you're not talking about that right now."
Timing dictates so much in politics -- and this is no exception, Fabrizio said.
"If this had happened a year ago, it would have turned the presidential campaign on its head," he said.