He surely didn’t plan it this way, but the announcement by US Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio that he now supports same-sex marriage highlighted the Conservative Political Action Conference’s difficulty with one of the most contentious political issues.
Some at the three-day CPAC meeting of conservative activists and prominent Republicans hit gay marriage head-on.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," US Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida told a cheering crowd.
“We cannot hope to limit government if we do not stand up for our core civil society institutions, beginning with marriage,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"People can love whom they want and live the way they choose," Mr. DeMint said, "but no one is entitled to redefine a foundational institution of civil society that has existed for centuries."
“What we need is people standing up more than ever for marriage as between a man and a woman,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told one panel discussion.
But another panel at the CPAC convention site – this one unofficial and titled “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the coalition, bringing tolerance out of the closet” – heard a different message.
“As a society we should in some way encourage people to live in the institution of marriage when they can,” Jonah Goldberg, editor at large for the conservative National Review, told the group. “Besides, it’s a free society and they should be free to form whatever associations they want.”
Sen. Portman’s change of heart on same-sex marriage came when his college-age son told his family that he’s gay.
Although some observers wondered why it took a personal situation in Portman’s family (as it did with former vice president Dick Cheney), the move has been welcomed by advocates of gay marriage.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (who is gay) called Portman’s announcement “profoundly emblematic.”
“Coming right after the widely publicized amicus brief in favor of gay marriage that dozens of prominent Republicans signed, Portman’s remarks illustrate a rapid movement by, and rising tension within, a party that has largely allied itself with social conservatives and is bit by bit breaking with them on this issue,” Mr. Bruni blogged on the newspaper’s web site.
(Bruni’s “amicus” reference is to the more than 100 conservatives and Republicans who recently filed a friend of the court brief in the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) case before the Supreme Court, among them former governors, GOP administration senior officials, prominent right-leaning pundits, and actor Clint Eastwood.)
CPAC organizers had excluded GOProud, the gay Republican group, and pointedly did not invite another gay group – Log Cabin Republicans – to take part in the three-day event.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, acknowledges that “the American Conservative Union [which organizes CPAC] is free to do what it likes – as conservatives, we understand that is their right.”
But he points to a new poll showing that most Republicans under age 30 support same-sex marriage, even though the number for all Republicans still is much less than that.
In fact, as Maggie Haberman writes in Politico, “Same-sex marriage is no longer the winning issue it was for the GOP less than a decade ago, when George W. Bush was running for re-election and a generation of younger voters had not yet come of age.”
At CPAC, the RealClearPolitics online news organization interviewed young attendees about same-sex marriage.
“Gay marriage isn’t a big issue to me – I think it should be fine,” said Brian Devlin, 18. “Republicans are about government staying out and people having their own choices, and that’s why I’m pro-gay marriage.”
Megan O’Dean, 19, said she hopes other prominent Republicans follow Portman’s lead in supporting same-sex marriage.
“I feel like when people have issues with the Republican Party, that’s what they focus on – gay marriage and stuff like that,” she explained. “And it gives a negative view because there’s more to the Republican Party than that.”
In a Daily Caller column Friday Mr. Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans warned that “if the ACU continues to pursue a mantra of exclusion and use CPAC to showcase individuals who believe gay conservatives have no business being a part of the greater conservative movement, they should know they do so at their own peril – and at the cost of alienating the next generation of American conservatives.