To fully appreciate how seriously the GOP is hampered by the dead weight of the religious right, look no further than yesterday's chat shows, where Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer did their darndest to deny reality.

The topic, of course, was gay marriage - which is slated to be front and center this week at the U.S. Supreme Court. Reed adamantly declared on Meet the Press: "The Republican party is going to remain a pro-family, pro-(straight)marriage party. I don't think that's going to change." And Bauer insisted on Fox News Sunday that marriage equality is "an anti-democratic movement," a "radical social experiment," a plot by "the elites" who have successfully "skewed" the national polls.

All told, Reed and Bauer, in voicing their hostility to the most pressing civil rights issue of this young century, personified the fundamental Republican dilemma: For the foreseeable future, the party can't be competitive in national elections unless it gets strong turnout from the religious right - but it doesn't have a prayer of actually winning national elections because it's cleaved to the religious right. Therein lies the dilemma. The Christian conservative base is both ballast and baggage.

Andrew Kohut, founding dirtector of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, cited this Catch-22 last week when he reported that the Republican favorability rating has fallen to "a 20-year low" - 33 percent positive, 58 percent negative. One major reason: "The emergence of a staunch conservative bloc that has undermined the GOP's national image." This bloc, he wrote, is "demographically and politically distinct from the national electorate."  And especially on social questions, like gay marriage, this bloc is "far beyond the mainstream."

Reed's "jump ball"

The mainstream, as we all know, supports gay marriage. Most voters under the age of 30 - the future of the electorate - see gay marriage as a no-brainer; they question why it's even an issue at all. As the Republican National Committee's autopsy report on the '12 election warned last week, "certain social issues" are "turning off young voters from the party." And Alex Lundry, a data analyst who worked for the Romney campaign, says that 64 percent of young evangelical voters now support gay marriage.

But the road to the future is imperiled by the likes of Reed and Bauer.

Incidentally, why can't the Sunday show bookers find people with more credibility than Reed and Bauer? Reed, after quitting the Christian Coalition, worked in close business cahoots with lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff. Reed's job was to mobilize grassroots Christians who were opposed to gambling casinos on moral grounds; in truth, Reed was being paid by other casinos that simply wanted to eliminate their competitors. Reed didn't break any laws; he merely engaged in spiritual fraud. As for Bauer, his aspiring political career peaked in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, where he garnered one percent of the vote.

But I digress. Reed tried his best yesterday to spin the polls his way. In terms of public opinion on gay marriage, he said, it's "basically a jump ball." How he can define a 22-point gap as "a jump ball" - the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows 58 percent yes, and 36 percent no - is surely a matter for him, his followers, and his maker. And somehow he failed to mention the stark reversal in public opinion over the past 10 years, as new young people reach voting age.

He did point out that 31 state referenda have endorsed "the durable, enduring, and uniquely complementary and procreative union of a man and a woman," which shows that opposite-sex marriage still fares well "at the ballot box." But, as attorney David Boies subsequently reminded everyone (Boies is arguing for gay marriage this week at the high court, along with conservative legal scholar Ted Olson), the court frequently steps in because "certain fundamental rights are too important to be left to the ballot box. We've done that with race, we've done that with women, we've done that with every discriminated class."

Reed's worst moment, however, was when he discussed the raising of children. He said, "the enduring, loving, biological mother and father is best for children. It's not even a close call." How does he know that? Because "the verdict of social science is overwhelming and irrefutable." That's quite a statement - given the fact that, just four days ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared its support for gay marriage and buttressed its endorsement with a report that features 60 social science citations. Gay men and lesbians can parent as well as straight people, the AAP concluded, "based on extensive review of the scientific literature."

Reed had an answer for that, sort of. He said that "the American College of Pediatricians" believes otherwise. Nice try. The group he mentioned is comprised of a few hundred conservatives who believe that gays can be "cured" with therapy - whereas the mainstream AAP has 60,000 pediatricians in its ranks.

Bauer's skewed spin

It was the same deal over on Fox News, where Bauer said he wasn't worried that the religious right was tilting the GOP farther away from mainstream American voters. He said: "The argument that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage is ludicrous...No, I'm not worried about it, because the polls are skewed."

As we learned last fall, people who refuse to accept poll results typically dismiss them as "skewed." Bauer didn't complain 10 years ago that the ABC News-Post poll was "skewed," back when 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, aged 18 to 49, opposed gay marriage (with only 37 percent in favor). Today, in a stunning switcheroo, 52 percent of that same 18-to-49 cohort supports gay marriage (with only 43 percent in opposition) - yet Bauer thinks it's "skewed."

And he was trumped by other Fox guests - Republicans who realize that the party has no future if it stays rooted in the past. Nicole Wallace, a former Bush adviser and McCain campaign aide, said simply: "What's going to happen in this country is that, eventually, there will be nobody left to book on a show like this to debate both sides of the issue. Eventually, as time marches on, this is a country that believes pretty squarely in marriage equality."

But the short-run problem, for Republicans, is that religious conservatives hostile to gay marriage still comprise 35 to 40 percent of the base - and they still dominate the early presidential primaries. Reed and Bauer may be out of step with the American mainstream, but they speak for the party's baggage. As Kohut, the pollster, warned: "While staunch conservatives help keep GOP (congressmen) in office, they also keep the party out of the White House." We'll see whether the GOP can solve this dilemma, as time marches on.

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