The 58 Percent: Rob Portman, Hillary Clinton and the Future of Marriage Equality

Are GOP leaders secretly hoping that the Supreme Court, after it hears arguments on marriage equality next week, rules in favor of equality? That's certainly what a few were saying at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, though not for attribution. Less than a week before the Supreme Court hears arguments in both the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 cases, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a record 58 percent of Americans supporting marriage equality, up five points from last year, when barely a majority were supportive. Most ominous for the GOP is that among 18- to 29-year-olds, a whopping 81 percent support marriage equality.

It's only one poll, and we'll have to see how others play out, but it's not difficult to believe that the issue is snowballing fast. President Obama's full evolution on marriage equality, announced just 10 months ago, helped move public opinion and create wins in four states where gay marriage was on the ballot in the fall. That in turn has conceivably pushed public opinion even further as the number of states with marriage equality has grown to nine, plus the District of Columbia.

Then last week Ohio Sen. Rob Portman became the first Republican senator to support marriage equality, announcing his decision two years after his son came out to him as gay. The news was like a bomb dropped on CPAC last week, and most conservative leaders ran for cover. The remark this week from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus that it is kind of OK now for Republicans to support marriage equality (or at least that they wouldn't be thrown under the bus for doing so), combined with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's mixed messages on the issue, Rick Santorum's continued belligerence, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's defensiveness (opposing gay marriage "does not make me a bigot," he said) and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe's sheer speechlessness, underscore that the GOP is in turmoil on the issue.

That's because, as the Washington Post/ABC News poll shows, rapidly growing majorities of Democrats and, more ominously for the GOP, independents support marriage equality, while only a minority in the GOP supports it. Republicans are in a terrible place on this and a variety of issues but only have themselves to blame for pandering to extremists who now keep the party from entering the 21st century.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, looked around at the Democratic landscape and realized that if she wants to run for president, she needs to get out front. She made a splashy video for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), released yesterday, announcing her support for marriage equality and, perhaps even more importantly, touting all that she's done for the LGBT community globally as Secretary of State. Clinton's possible 2016 rivals include governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O'Malley of Maryland, both of whom championed marriage equality in their states, pushing bills and signing those bills into law. 

It's been been clear since President Obama came out for marriage equality in May 2012 that a Democrat could never win the Democratic presidential nomination again without supporting marriage equality. But few of us would have imagined just a few years ago that contenders might be fiercely battling one another over who has done more for gay equality. With mainstream America embracing gay rights, that's becoming a bigger reality. The GOP's only hope, it seems, is for the Supreme Court to take the issue off the table entirely. It's ironic (and grotesque) that the party that has been the most vociferously anti-gay, the party that brutally attacked LGBT people for decades and exploited homophobia for political gain, may be praying that the justices next week begin the process of giving gays full equality.