WASHINGTON — If you want to know just how far the debate over women serving in combat situations has come, look no further than Sen. Marco Rubio, a top contender for the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination and a leading voice in the modern conservative movement.
For Rubio, the question is a no-brainer. "Women already are in combat to begin with. We should be putting our best soldiers forward regardless of their gender," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said Thursday evening.
Likewise, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon also came out in favor of the Defense Department's announcement that the ban on women in combat would be lifted.
"After a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations and we welcome this review," McKeon said in a statement.
Statements like those from leading Republicans were unheard of until only very recently. During the last debate over women's role in combat in the mid-'90s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich famously said to The New York Times, "Females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don't have upper body strength."
That 1995 fight was incredibly bitter and was part of broader, and successful, effort of what was then known as the Christian Right to flex its political muscles and exert a level of control over much of the political landscape for more than a decade to come.
Even last year, former Sen. Rick Santorum made similar arguments, and there are still plenty of conservatives who vehemently oppose what the Family Research Council Thursday called a "social experiment."
On one level, Rubio and McKeon's comments simply demonstrate a reflection of current realities: Women, including Rep. Tammy Duckworth, have served and are currently serving, being injured and dying in combat for the United States. And in other countries, like Israel, women have a long history of serving on the front lines.
But Rubio, in particular, represents the shift of many conservatives away from notions about women and other aspects of society that were orthodoxy for their movement a decade ago.
And in recent years, a growing number of Republicans have begun to accept heretofore unacceptable ideas, ranging from openly gay members of the military to abandoning the annual "war on Christmas" fight.
That's not to say Rubio isn't conservative. Far from it. He is, after all, a co-chair of the Values Action Team, a Senate group of conservatives that he helps coordinate with social conservatives on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and he is a strong conservative on both of those touchstone issues.
But the fact that one of the leading early candidates for the Republican presidential nomination would weigh in so easily and definitively on an issue that was once extremely controversial clearly demonstrates that the ground on which conservatives and the GOP operates is shifting, no matter how slowly.