“The mind of a nation is changing,” conservative journalist David Frum told same-sex marriage advocates gathered in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is symbolic of that evolution. The writer has gone from being an ardent opponent of marriage equality to supporting the cause. And he’s not alone.
In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s hearing of challenges to California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and the national Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal agencies from recognizing same-sex unions performed in states that allow them, Democrats Hillary and Bill Clinton and Senator Claire McCaskill have publicly endorsed marriage equality—surprising no one.
But Republicans have joined the chorus, including Ohio Senator Rob Portman, considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Portman cited his son Will, who’s gay, as a reason he’s changed his view and lent his support to equality:
“Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective; that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love...”
Portman’s rethinking is a telling indication of how the gay-marriage debate has changed to a conversation. As recently as 2004, Republicans used the so-called wedge issue to eke out electoral victories—Ohio in the 2004 presidential race being the prime example. The party is considering a different route to capitalize on same-sex matrimonial rights.
“The issue of gay marriage has been debated for many years. It’s reasonable to assume the debate is going to change a little bit.”
For instance, Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman and strategist behind Bush’s 2004 wedge-issue victory in Ohio, is now out of the closet and supporting marriage equality.
Being pro-gay marriage is the view of the majority. About 53 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage and, in what’s being dubbed the Portman effect, 57 percent say they have a family member or close friend who is gay or lesbian, up 12 points from 2007, according to CNN.
The politics of the issue are changing, but how some voters perceive it remains the same.
“They refer to it as a wedge issue because generally it is only the key decision criteria for a small number of voters,” Mark Blankenship, a West Virginia-based Republican pollster, tells TakePart. “There are just not a lot of people who make their decision based on that issue.”
Republicans like Portman who take a public stance in support of gay marriage are being strategic, he notes. “It’s all a numbers game, it’s about where you can generate your support. It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk.”
The risk is that the number of Republicans Portman alienates could surpass the number of Independents and Democrats he attracts with his stance.
“Yes, he could lose a marginal amount of conservative Republican votes,” says Blankenship, “but I think it could be a neutrality, because you could appeal to moderate Democrats and Independents who have a different set of priorities.”
Moreover, because the economy remains in the doldrums, pocketbook issues are still the priority for voters. That could change, though, if the economy improves as it did in the 1990s, when social issues dominated the national debate.
Still, a drop in unemployment won’t mean politicians will revert to opposing marriage equality, says Blankenship. “The issue of gay marriage has been debated for many years. It’s reasonable to assume the debate is going to change a little bit.”
Frum, in his speech in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, called that change “an awesome thing to see—and to be part of.”
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