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GOP leaders, gay marriage and the arc of history

Ohio Senator Rob Portman waves to the delegates during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Pin 2012. Portman said Thursday, March 14, 2013 that he now supports gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned one of his sons is gay. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It’s been a big couple of weeks for the country’s political leaders and the issue of gay marriage.

Ohio’s Rob Portman, whose son is gay, shocked many when he became the first GOP senator to openly support marriage for homosexual couples. His announcement came the same week a Washington Post poll found that 58 percent of Americans now back the right to marry for gays and lesbians, a historic high. Then Hillary Clinton came out in support of same-sex unions, a move many on the left eagerly eyed as a sign she will run for president in 2016. And in a blistering self-analysis report, Republican Party operatives seemed to call for more tolerance on the issue of gay rights, writing that if “our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Meanwhile, political leaders against gay marriage had their share of the spotlight this week, too. In the wake of Portman’s announcement of support, several high-profile Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), reiterated their position against the issue. Retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)’s opposition statement was easily the most odd: “I’m not gay. So I’m not going to marry one.” Ohio Governor John Kasich, on the other hand, came out in support of civil unions — reportedly — before his spokesperson said he was actually still against them.

Of course, all this sudden taking of sides and planting of flags is not pure coincidence. It’s coming in advance of next week, when the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, a defining moment for the Court. Once justices eventually make a call on the two cases before them, the debate will immediately change from what side political leaders are on to what they think of the Court’s decision.

As a result, the recent bluster against same-sex marriage carries big risks for GOP leadership. The quick increase in support for gay marriage among voters has already made them look somewhat out of touch with the views of a majority of Americans. If the Supreme Court, in one swift blow, makes it legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, they will look even more so, at least to the growing number of Americans who support that right.

Gay marriage is a highly charged social issue that many in the Republican base-as well as others-remain against. Some minds will never change on the subject, and it’s too early to know whether the Court will eventually decide to uphold or strike down Proposition 8 or the Defense of Marriage Act. But if it does rule in favor of gay marriage, Republican leaders run the risk of looking even more like they are on the so-called wrong side of history. And for voters who expect their leaders to set the agenda for the future, that’s not a very good place to be.



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