Is there any doubt that Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) punched above his weight and landed a blow against intolerance and fantasyland conservatism?

Sen. Rob Portman (David Kohl/Associated Press)

In a moving piece he explained that learning his son was gay caused him to reexamine his opposition to same sex marriage:

We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.


One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.


Over the past decade, nine states and the District of Columbia have recognized marriage for same-sex couples. It is understandable to feel cautious about making a major change to such an important social institution, but the experience of the past decade shows us that marriage for same-sex couples has not undercut traditional marriage. In fact, over the past 10 years, the national divorce rate has declined.

Two reactions were predictable. They were unfortunate and indeed a reminder that human beings can be quite cruel.

On the left, many pro-gay rights liberals reacted in sneering fashion, condemning Portman for coming to his views only after a family member turned out to be gay. The very same crowd rejoiced when President Obama and former president Bill Clinton changed their minds, so make no mistake that on the left losing the ability to demonize the right on the issue is a big deal. It deprives them of a sense of moral superiority and a wedge with younger voters, both gay and straight.

On the other side, a right-wing blogger deplored Portman’s acceptance of his son. Others complained that social conservatives were being “blamed” for the 2012 loss. The first is monstrous; the second misguided.

The Republican Party has a challenge: It can no longer construct a presidential majority based on older, southern, white religious voters. In big ways and small, the existing coalition of hawks, libertarians, social conservatives and every gradation thereof must widen the coalition while staying true to the essence of modern conservatism, the conservation of personal liberty. The CPAC panel (a video of the event is available here) was the first of what I suspect will be many robust conversations on the right. What is the relationship between civil and religious marriage? What is the purview of the federal government? What basis is there for denying a state’s electorate the right to freely vote to expand the definition of marriage?

Now some of this may be rendered moot by the Supreme Court. But regardless of how the court rules, the tide of social opinion and the generational pull toward greater inclusiveness are not stoppable, and certainly not by hateful tweets and exclusion of gay rights supporters. One might as well run against gravity.

The good news is that the majority of Americans and even Republicans do not fall into either of the camps described above. Staunch conservatives, libertarians and Republicans of all stripes have relayed their relief, and indeed delight, that the issue is finally being addressed. A Senate staffer for a conservative Republican e-mailed me, “Bless Rob Portman.” That summed up the overwhelming reaction to the shifting of the tectonic plates on the right. And in fact the two top vote-getters in the CPAC straw poll, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both have spoken out in favor of letting states decide the definition of marriage.

Like a dark cloud blown away by a strong wind, the GOP’s intolerance toward gays and insistence on nationalizing opposition to gay marriage will be swept away by conservatives like Portman as well as rising stars like Rand Paul. In doing so, they will clear the air and brighten the electoral prospects for the right as conservatives come to understand toleration does not mean approval and most under-30- (40-?) year old’s are entirely unable to grasp the opposition to same-sex marriage. (Another GOP up-and-comer Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made the latter observation.)

Portman is not the first Republican to switch positions on gay marriage, but he is the most prominent conservative. And more importantly, he won’t be the last. In Sen. Rand Paul’s vernacular, the “stale and moss-covered” GOP is in the process of becoming something new.

For giving the conservative movement a strong shove in the direction of reality, we can only say, well done, senator.