03/10/2014 09:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Republicans Begin Evolving on Gay Marriage

Is the gay marriage issue beginning to disappear from the Republican Party's playbook? Are Republicans on the verge of admitting defeat and deciding to move on? The answer is likely "not quite yet" to both of those questions, but the fact that they can even now be seriously asked seems like progress of a sort. It'll likely be years before we see Republicans (at least on the national stage) boldly taking pro-marriage-equality stands, and it'll likely take at least one more groundbreaking Supreme Court decision before the issue loses all of its political weight in the party. But glimmers of such a future can at least now be seen, which wasn't true even as recently as one year ago (the first two landmark Supreme Court gay marriage case decisions were announced only at the end of last June). Previously unimaginable, these questions are now in the realm of the possible, to put it another way. Because (to borrow President Obama's term) the Republican Party has finally started to "evolve" on the subject.

The big convention of conservatives in Maryland got a lot of press coverage last week, because it is always ripe ground for reporters to gather some pretty astonishing quotes. But none of the news from CPAC seemed oriented (pun intended) toward attacking gay marriage. I'm sure there were a few such comments made at the conference, but they didn't rate mention in the media, for whatever that's worth. I also heard at least one anecdotal report that the biggest "defense of marriage" table in the exhibition hall wasn't drawing much of a crowd at all, but this is unverifiable and subjective at best. If true, however, perhaps even the purest-of-the-pure conservatives are beginning to realize they're on the brink of losing what was formally a dandy wedge issue to wield against Democrats, come election-time.

All the way across the continent, though, a different sort of conclave of Republicans is happening. The Dorchester Conference has always been a rather liberal affair, and a rather limited one at that (since it focuses only on state-level politics in Oregon). Begun by Robert Packwood 50 years ago, the conference began by bucking the state Republican Party apparatus and hewing much farther left than the party as a whole. Over time, the Conference became dominated by conservatives, but it seems to have returned to its more-liberal roots this year -- as social conservatives stayed away this time and instead held their own separate meeting.

Perhaps due to their absence, the Conference just voted (by a healthy 233-162 vote) to support a ballot measure this year to legalize gay marriage in Oregon. Packwood attended this year's semicentennial gathering himself, and during the discussion over the gay marriage issue pleaded with his fellow Republicans to get behind candidates who can actually win general elections. Supporting gay marriage was part of this shift, he explained: "One, it's the right and moral thing to do. Two, it's going to happen. Get ahead of the curve, not behind it."

While there was a vocal minority who opposed the concept of Oregon Republicans coming out in support of marriage equality, others were much more practical. Jacob Vandever, running for a state legislative seat, pointed out: "I believe this is a wedge issue that drives young people to the Democratic Party, and then they learn the rest of the Democratic agenda." Kirk Maag framed the issue in standard conservative language: "The government should get out of the business of telling me who I can love and who I should marry."

This should be encouraging news to gay rights supporters, because it shows a path that the rest of the Republican Party might eventually be led down. The "it's none of the government's business" rhetoric is somewhat of a different message (at its heart it is a purely small-government conservative message), but it could eventually become part of the Republican Party's worldview, so it should be welcomed.

I stated over a year ago that I thought the legal tide had turned on marriage equality. Before the Supreme Court even made their decisions, I predicted that the movement toward legal acceptance of gay marriage would happen one way or another. The public's opinion had changed, and it wasn't ever going to change back. In fact, I've even predicted exactly what is now happening in Oregon -- the wedge issue has turned, and is now cutting in the opposite direction. Democrats are the ones putting marriage equality initiatives on the ballot now, not Republicans. Beginning in the 1990s, Republicans relied on "defense of (non-gay) marriage" initiatives to turn out their base and boost their chances in election after election, in state after state. Now, however, Democrats are going to retake all that ground, by putting marriage equality on the ballot in states where public opinion has radically shifted. This is going to divide Republicans, for the time being, until their party throws in the towel and admits defeat.

There's going to be a lag between legal acceptance of marriage equality and political acceptance by Republicans, though. It's clear now the course the law is going to take in the very near future. State after state will have their "defense of marriage" laws challenged in federal courts. So far, every one of these has been struck down, even in conservative bastions like Utah and Oklahoma. Eventually, one of these cases will make its way up the legal ladder and arrive back in front of the Supreme Court. The Supremes will finally issue a blanket Loving-v-Virginia-style ruling which will bring marriage equality to all states, for good (and forever). This is likely still a few years away, though. Until that time, Republicans at the state level will be waging a rear-guard action, attempting to pass laws which enshrine at least some shred of discrimination against gays, as Arizona just tried to do. But think about it for a minute -- these bills, by their very existence, are an admission that times are changing and gay marriage is coming. Look for ever-more-creative ways to legislate anti-gay bigotry in the next few years, in other words, since conservatives can already tell they've lost the big battle.

This political shift is going to become more and more apparent in the next few years, at least if the Republican Party has any hope of attracting young voters in the future. Marriage equality is going to become the law of the land in state after state, either by judicial decision or by popular referendum. Wherever it's on the ballot in the next few years, it is going to divide the Republican Party, as it is doing right now in Oregon. Practical-minded Republicans are going to admit the truth of Bob Packwood's words, and get over it and get beyond it. Purists will fight to the very end, but they will become less and less prominent in the party as a whole, as the Republican establishment eventually begins seeing the future with the same clarity Packwood is now exhibiting.

How long this is going to take is anyone's guess, and likely will hinge on when the Supreme Court decides to finish the work they began last June. The debate over marriage equality is going to get shrill within the Republican Party, which is really the last place the debate is even being fought on a political level anymore. Democrats are pretty unified behind marriage equality at this point, and the public grows more accepting of the idea by the month, it seems. The political ground is shifting fast, and this shift is even beginning to happen within the Republican Party. Sooner or later this shift will be complete, and the issue will disappear from American politics altogether, or at the very least relegated to the absolute fringe. How long it takes before we see a Republican presidential nominee who fully supports marriage equality is still an open question. But, as with the questions we started with today, it is a question which can now be validly asked. My guess is that it'll happen faster than anyone would now believe -- say, by 2020. Or, at the latest, 2024.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post