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Why the Democrats learned to love same-sex marriage

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When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced this summer that he will sponsor a same-sex marriage bill in next year’s legislative session, he heard from Edwin F. O’Brien, the archbishop of Baltimore, who pleaded with the governor to change his mind. “Maryland is not New York,” O’Brien wrote. He urged O’Malley not to allow his position on “the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency.”

O’Brien is correct: Maryland is not New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was widely hailed for shepherding a bill legalizing same-sex marriage through his state’s divided legislature in June.

And the archbishop is right about something else, too: O’Malley’s announcement, which was lauded by advocates and sympathetic legislators, was testament to a tipping point we have reached in American politics. President Obama may be the last nominee for president from his party who does not openly declare support for same-sex marriage. It is now not only acceptable but encouraged for Democratic politicians with national ambitions to advocate full marriage equality for gay couples.

O’Malley, a Catholic who earlier in his career advocated civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage, shared little when asked about his personal evolution on the issue at his July announcement. He instead couched his support by discussing legal rights and protections.

In an interview on WTOP (103.5) radio since then, the governor allowed that he previously “made a judgment . . . that the place for consensus, the point at which that wave would crest, if you will, was around civil unions. I think we are past that point, and I believe that the consensus that needs to be reached is on marital equality rights.”

O’Malley echoed that position this past week during remarks at a fundraiser for Equality Maryland, the state’s leading gay rights advocacy group. “There are very few issues I think that any of us can point to over the last several decades,” he said, “that . . . have moved as quickly as this issue has.”

New York joined five other states and the District in allowing marriage between gay couples. Others on the list include Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two presidential nominating states.

It is far too early, of course, to know who will be in the mix for the Democratic nomination next time around, but it’s a reasonable bet that the eventual nominee will share Cuomo and O’Malley’s position on same-sex marriage. Cuomo’s success raised his national profile and gave him a more prominent place on lists of possible 2016 contenders. Since becoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in December, O’Malley’s name has started showing up on such lists, too.

“We’re at a point where you can be one of the early leaders on the issue and get well-deserved credit, or you can risk looking like you were behind the times,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist. Trippi thinks that by 2016, we will have moved beyond the issue — and that the fanfare surrounding “the good old days” of New York and other states legalizing same-sex marriage could almost look quaint.

Trippi knows more about the good old days of this issue than most. During the 2004 presidential cycle, he served as campaign manager to former Vermont governor Howard Dean. While campaigning for the nomination in 2003, Dean seemed pioneering in his support for civil unions.

In the years that followed, civil unions emerged as a sort of political safe harbor for Democrats, including O’Malley, Cuomo and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who beat out Dean and others for the 2004 nomination before losing to President George W. Bush.

By supporting civil unions, politicians have been able to side with same-sex couples on the need to extend the legal rights that accompany marriage, while avoiding using the M word and offending the religious sensibilities of other voters.

But for advocates of gay rights, civil unions are now viewed, at best, as a way station on the road to full marriage equality — and at worst, as an arrangement that is “separate but equal.”

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe in July, Kerry wrote that he had changed his view and arrived at “a better place.” He punctuated his piece by quoting boxer Muhammad Ali: “The man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

Kerry, a Catholic, attributed part of his shift to having seen seven years of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, where they have been legal since 2004.

“Seeing is believing,” Kerry wrote. “Many of us who once believed civil unions were sufficient to protect legal rights because we thought of marriage as a religious sacrament between a man and a woman, have seen that no church has been forced to do anything that contradicts its teachings. . . . It’s not about a word — it’s about equality under the law.”

Kerry was writing in defense of Obama, who has said he is “evolving” on the issue. While the president has stopped short of embracing gay marriage, he is supporting a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states that allow them.

Bill Clinton, the Democratic president who signed that law in 1996, has also come around. In a 2009 television interview, he said he believed that legalization of same-sex marriage should be left to the states but that he no longer personally opposed it.

More recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself a former Democratic presidential candidate, expressed support for New York’s new law. The former New York senator has favored civil unions.

So, too, was Cuomo. He voiced support for civil unions during his first, failed run for governor in 2002. He later told the New York Times that he backed same-sex marriage in his heart at the time.

Maryland Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), an openly gay lawmaker, said she thinks many of the more recent conversions of those with once or future presidential aspirations have as much to do with politics as personal beliefs.

“I think it’s been more about the hesi­ta­tion about where it positions you for the general election than core convictions,” said Mizeur, a former Senate staffer to Kerry and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “As each year passes, though, you have more and more voters for whom this isn’t even an issue and can’t understand why it is.”

It’s possible that Republicans will get to that point eventually, but with social conservatives so influential in the primaries, the contest to challenge Obama has made clear that the GOP’s presidential hopefuls are not there yet.

This was underscored in July by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Before declaring his candidacy, Perry appeared at a Republican conference in Colorado, where he responded to a question about New York’s same-sex marriage law by saying: “That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me.”

He was trying to highlight his support for states’ rights, but Perry’s comments so dismayed conservatives in his party that he soon sought to clarify them in a radio appearance with Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council.

“Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me,” Perry said. “My stance hasn’t changed.”

Republican candidates may be better off just avoiding the issue.

“I would advise them not to bring it up,” said David Welch, a former research director for the Republican National Committee. “You beat President Obama on the economy.”

Welch, who worked on the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), argued that same-sex marriage could be a nonissue in Republican presidential primaries sooner than many people expect.

A memowritten in July by leading pollsters for Obama and former president Bush made the case that the public’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is rapidly accelerating and will “come to dominate,” in part because support is so strong among younger voters.

The memo, by Joel Benenson and Jan van Lohuizen, noted that most recent national polls have shown that a majority of Americans now support full marriage rights for gay couples. In one of those surveys, a Washington Post-ABC poll in March, 53 percentsaid they think it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married; 44 percent were opposed.

Looking behind the numbers, Benenson and van Lohuizen pointed out that such acceptance “has accelerated dramatically in the last 2 years” and that increases have come across the board, including among Republicans.

Already, support of same-sex marriage among Democrats ranges from 57 percent to 69 percent among the five polls cited in the memo. And the primary voters that presidential candidates will be courting will be a more liberal subset of those Democrats.

What’s more, Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to have had same-sex marriages performed for years by the time another Democrat runs for president.

By then, barring the unlikely prospect of a legislative repeal, “it would seem odd for a [Democratic] presidential candidate not to support marriage equality,” said Kathleen Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, where gay nuptials became legal last year. “It’s just not seen as a big deal here.”

So what does that tell us about O’Malley?

His decision to pass on questions about his personal evolution on same-sex marriage has led some to speculate that there has been less of one than it might seem.

During this year’s legislative session, which ended in April, O’Malley said he would sign a same-sex marriage bill if it reached his desk. His support for the measure was largely limited to closed-door discussions with lawmakers, but there was little question that he favored it.

The legislation was narrowly approved by the Senate but unexpectedly fell short in the House of Delegates. Though both chambers are heavily Democratic, the bill proved a tough sell among African American delegates in Prince George’s, where many churches were opposed, and among more conservative Democrats in southern Maryland and the Baltimore suburbs.

At the July news conference, O’Malley explained his more vocal support for same-sex marriage this way: “At the end of the day, I think all of us need to look at this issue from the eyes of children of gay, committed couples and ask ourselves how one family could be protected less in the eyes of the law than another family. I don’t think that’s an injustice that can be allowed to stand.”

Whatever brought him to this point, the coming year will test O’Malley’s powers of persuasion as he tries to pick up the handful of additional votes needed to pass the bill. A lot is riding on the outcome — for both Maryland and the political future of its governor.

John Wagner covers Maryland politics for The Washington Post.

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