The Supreme Court has yet to rule on gay marriage, but the verdict among leading Democrats is clear. When asked if they support gay marriage, the party’s top elected officials are increasingly saying, “I do.”
Even Democrats who are running for re-election in competitive, conservative-leaning states in 2014 are coming out in favor of the practice. North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, for example, announced her support for same-sex marriage Wednesday.
“After much thought and prayer, I have come to my own personal conclusion that we shouldn’t tell people who they can love or who they can marry,” she said in a statement.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, meanwhile, endorsed gay nuptials on his Facebook page Monday.
“I support marriage equality because it is the fair and right thing to do,” he said. Warner changed his Twitter avatar to a symbol used by supporters of gay marriage as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases involving the issue.
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester made a similar social networking gesture in favor of same-sex matrimony.
“I’m proud to support marriage equality because no one should be able to tell a Montanan or any American who they can love and who they can marry,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.
Tester’s announcement followed Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s embrace of gay marriage. Both Democrats were re-elected in November.
North Carolina, Virginia, Montana, and Missouri have all voted to ban same-sex marriage. North Carolina held its vote last year, while Missouri’s dates back to 2004.
There are now only nine Democratic senators who oppose gay marriage, down from 17 before the 2012 elections. Even some of the holdouts don’t sound very committed. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has been quoted as saying, “I feel very strongly that people should be allowed to love who they love, but unfortunately my state has a very strong ban against gay marriage constitutionally, so I’m going to have to think really carefully and listen to the voters of my state about that issue.”
This is a dramatic turnaround. In 1996, Senate Democrats voted 32 to 14 in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriage. House Democrats supported it by a margin of 188 to 65.
Liberal stalwarts like Joe Biden, Paul Wellstone, and Barbara Milkulski were among the Democratic senators who supported the Defense of Marriage Act.
Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. The legislation’s constitutionality is now being considered by the Supreme Court.
According to Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, Clinton urged John Kerry to support a ban on same-sex marriage during the 2004 presidential campaign (Clinton has denied the charge). Kerry lost many socially conservative states to President George W. Bush that year, including Ohio, where gay marriage was on the ballot at the same time.
As late as 2006, many Democratic senators who opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage stressed that they didn’t actually support gay marriage.
Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic senator from New York, appealed to her own marital difficulties in expressing her support for traditional marriage. She called marriage “not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman.”
Clinton described “the fundamental bedrock principle that [marriage] exists between a man and a woman going back into the mists of history as one of the founding foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization, and that its primary, principle role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they are to become adults.”
Both Clintons now support gay marriage. Hillary Clinton, now considered a leading contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, announced this month, “I support [gay marriage] personally, and as a matter of policy and law.”
President Barack Obama didn’t come out in favor of gay marriage until May 2012, as he was running for a second term. In a 2004 Illinois Senate debate with Republican challenger Alan Keyes, Obama said, “What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman, but what I also believe is that we have an obligation to make sure that gays and lesbians have the rights of citizenship that afford them visitations to hospitals, that allow them to transfer property between partners, to make sure they’re not discriminated against on the job.”
In the same debate, Obama denied that marriage was a civil right.
Democratic strategist Mark Mellman told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage has made more Democratic politicians comfortable adopting that position.
“Democrats will pay the political price for that position anyway, so they might as well reap the political benefits too,” he explained.
But public opinion looms even larger. “This is the fastest public opinion has ever moved on an issue,” Mellman said. “I think Democrats want to get on the right side of history and the right side of public opinion.”
According to Gallup, 73 percent of Democrats now support same-sex marriage. Only 30 percent of Republicans do, though there has been a shift among younger members of the GOP.
Mellman said that 2008 was probably the last election cycle in which top-tier Democratic presidential candidates would oppose gay marriage. “If 2016 isn’t the last time top-tier Republican candidates oppose it, it will be soon afterward,” he added.
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