CPAC 2013 was supposed to be about the redemption of the conservative old guard and the reinforcement of traditional orthodoxy. We expected publicity for Palin and the pursuit of ideological purity. After only one day, the very opposite has happened. March 14, 2013 was a momentous day in conservative politics.
Yesterday was the day when gay rights advocacy rose to the mainstream of American conservatism. That is a shocking development. Just last month, the Republican gay rights group GOProud was excluded from the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Many conservatives stood up for GOProud. The Conservative Enterprise Institute (CEI) decided to host yesterday's gay rights "Rainbow on the Right" panel discussion at CPAC. The panel featured GOProud head Jimmy LaSalvia, Liz Mair, Jonah Goldberg, Margaret Hoover, and Jennifer Rubin. That's a varied and distinguished group whose members are not easily labeled as RINOs. And the speakers sent a clear message: Conservatives must evolve on this issue.
The popular response was also clear. The CEI event room was packed. And alongside regular applause, a palpable emotion was in play. This audience wasn't merely friendly,. They were active participants. It felt like a rally rather than a think tank seminar.
Also at CPAC yesterday: A panel discussion opposing gay marriage. Unfortunately for its organizers, this one wasn't a great success. In fact, half the room was empty.
The dichotomy was clear — a message of greater freedom had triumphed over a message of selective freedom. Of course, gay marriage opponents should not automatically be considered bigots. But the winds have shifted. Support for gay marriage is becoming a quiet but increasingly comfortable partner to conservative ideology. First and foremost this is a cultural change. Regardless of politics, a growing majority of Americans are comfortable with our gay fellow citizens.
But of course, CPAC only offers half of Thursday's seismic story.
Yesterday evening, Sen. Rob Portman, a top Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, came out in support of gay marriage. Referring to his gay son, Portman said, "It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years."
Portman's words and stance couldn't be clearer. He loves his son and he wants him to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is paramount. And in the absence of logical arguments against gay marriage, the pursuit of happiness is now dominating the developing train of conservative social thought.
We conservatives are realizing that marriage isn't an end in itself, and that marriage isn't a symbol that must be idolized and protected. Rather, we're beginning to understand that marriage is a vehicle to achieving happiness, that it's the means to a desired end. And we're increasingly aware that if we truly care about individual freedom, happiness can't be a grant of the state. It must be a natural right of all our people.