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For a brief time in 2004, then-S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Ken Rudin collection )

Gay Marriage, DOMA And The Dramatic Shift In Public Opinion In One Year

by Ken Rudin
Mar 18, 2013

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Democratic presidential candidates seeking gay support, 1976-present. If you had Jerry Brown in your Pope office pool, you would have lost. Muskie

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It is remarkable how fast the issue of same-sex marriage has moved the American public. Of course, some long-time proponents will argue the opposite, that it has taken far too long for it to gain acceptance. And they say that there is no shortage of efforts around the country to block or overturn the practice.

But there is no question that since Vice President Biden first announced his support for the issue last May — jumping the gun on President Obama, whose position on the issue was said to still be "evolving" — things have changed rapidly. Almost immediately, and far more significant, was Obama's declaration he felt the same. After that came dramatic shifting in public opinion, where for the first time ever, polls show that more people support gay marriage than oppose it. It became a cause to be celebrated at the Democratic National Convention last summer. Voters in three states, after an unbroken string of defeats, chose to legalize gay marriage in November. And it got considerable attention at Obama's inauguration in January, where he said, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

Now, not even a year since Obama's switch, it has become a Democratic Party policy given, akin to abortion rights or increasing the minimum wage.

And there may be some shifting on the Republican side as well. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a leading GOP voice and thought to be on Mitt Romney's short list for VP last year, announced Friday that he was ending his opposition to same-sex marriage. His reasoning is personal; he has a 21-year old gay son and said he does not want him treated any differently because of his sexuality. But he is the highest ranking Republican (and the only sitting GOP senator) to take that position. If Obama's 2012 reversal put him in better stead with members of his own party, Portman's shift has probably resulted in the opposite. Still, in an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch, Portman tried to frame it as a conservative staple:

"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. ...

I've thought a great deal about this issue, and like millions of Americans in recent years, I've changed my mind on the question of marriage for same-sex couples. As we strive as a nation to form a more perfect union, I believe all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage."

The New York Times' Jeremy Peters noted that religious conservatives "reacted strongly" to Portman's switch, "with some saying that he had turned his back on Christianity":

"'Senator Portman speaks like so many who call themselves Christians but actually don't spend much time dwelling on the Word of God,' wrote Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator, on Twitter.

Others were harsher. The Traditional Values Coalition, a religious group that is often vocal on gay issues, issued a statement that equated homosexuality with drunken driving and mocked Mr. Portman, writing, 'My child is a drunk driver and I love him.'"

But if we're talking about politicians who have had a change of heart, add former President Bill Clinton to the list. The issue here is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (known by its acronym DOMA), which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman and which would deny federal rights to same-sex spouses. (Portman, then a House member, was a sponsor of the Act.) Recently Clinton penned an op-ed in the Washington Post saying it should be overturned. Clinton, of course, was president when he signed DOMA into law on Sept. 21, 1996. The issue of overturning it comes before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 27, when the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 — a 2008 anti-gay marriage initiative passed by the voters — will be decided.

Though there are certainly notable exceptions — and we saw it last month, when dozens of prominent Republicans signed on to urge the Court to overturn Prop 8 — gay marriage is one of those issues that often separates Ds from Rs. But that leads to an e-mail that arrived a few weeks ago from Teri Donaldson of Wichita, Kansas, which asked:

"If the Democrats were in control in 1996, would Congress have passed the Defense of Marriage Act? Did many Democrats vote for it?"

A better question might be would the Democrats have allowed the bill to reach the floor at all, had they controlled Congress back in '96. We'll never know the answer to that. But we do know how they voted.

The Act was introduced in Congress on May 7, 1996 by Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican. (That Barr, who opposed same-sex marriage, anti-drug laws and the Patriot Act, could wind up as the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee in 2008 always fascinated me, but that's for another time.)

But Clinton, who in 1992 was clearly more aggressive in seeking votes from the gay community than any other major presidential candidate in history, nonetheless continued to state during his re-election campaign four years later that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. So while White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry called the Defense of Marriage Act "gay baiting, pure and simple," and while Clinton himself said that DOMA was "unnecessary" and "divisive," the president reiterated that he would sign it.

(A very interesting read by Richard Socarides in the March 8 issue of The New Yorker: "Why Bill Clinton Signed the Defense of Marriage Act".)

The House passed the measure on June 12, 1996 by a vote of 342-67. Republicans supported it by a margin of 224 to one (Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin). Democrats, though, also overwhelmingly backed it, by 118 to 65. Among those Democrats who voted "yes" were many leaders, progressives and up-and-comers, such as Rosa DeLauro (CT), Dick Durbin (IL), Ben Cardin (MD), Steny Hoyer (MD), Dick Gephardt (MO), Bob Torricelli (NJ), Bob Menendez (NJ), Bill Richardson (NM), Chuck Schumer (NY), Nita Lowey (NY), Marcy Kaptur (OH), Jack Reed (RI), Jim Clyburn (SC) and Tim Johnson (SD).

It was a similar landslide in the Senate on Sept. 10, where the vote in favor was 85-14. All 53 Republicans voted yes; Democrats favored this "gay baiting" and "divisive" bill by a 32-14 margin. Among the Dem "yes" votes: Chris Dodd (CT), Joe Lieberman (CT), Joe Biden (DE), Tom Harkin (IA), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Carl Levin (MI), Paul Wellstone (MN), Bill Bradley (NJ), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Harry Reid (NV), John Glenn (OH), Patrick Leahy (VT) and Patty Murray (WA).

So, it's difficult to answer your question. We assume many Democrats would welcome the dismantling of DOMA in the present day. But we do know that an overwhelming majority of them voted for it back then.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

TOTN Political Junkie no, Podcast yes. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show was about 10 minutes old when the news broke that a new pope was chosen. Habemus Papam, it was announced, which roughly translates to "Get Ken Rudin off the air and out of the studio." Fortunately, there is the new episode of the weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," that you can feast your ears on (assuming ears can be feasted). My partner-in-crime Ron Elving and I discussed the ongoing CPAC event, the going-nowhere budget talks (zzzzz), Sen. Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) decision to retire, and next week's congressional primary in South Carolina. You can listen to the latest episode here:

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

ON THE CALENDAR:

March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.

April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01. Also: St. Louis mayoral election.

April 9 — Special election in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned.

April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.

May 7 — Special election in S.C. 01.

May 21 — Los Angeles mayoral runoff. Also: Pittsburgh mayoral primary.

June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.

June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.

Aug. 6 — Seattle mayoral primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: The Harris Survey has Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine five points ahead of President Richard Nixon in a hypothetical 1972 three-way trial heat, with Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the race as a third-party candidate, as he was in 1968. The poll shows Muskie 44, Nixon 39, Wallace 12. Without Wallace, Muskie — the Democratic VP nominee in '68 — led Nixon by six, 48-42 percent (March 18, 1971).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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