One of the more difficult things in politics is navigating the gulf between safe policies that maintain the status quo and those that will change how one's party (and oneself) will be seen in the future. In the face of political trends in a nation, one can bet on them or against them, and depending on how one's party has dealt with the relevant issue traditionally, one might either continue to channel opposition or reinvent the party (if it's been opposed). The weighing of risks will be done both at the time and from many years afterwards; if one breaks new ground and it sticks, one may have to endure rebellion within one's party long enough for any possible dividends for the change to occur. All of this happens in the context of other parties and factions that are similarly vying for dominance.
We saw a fair amount of this in the appointment of Michael Steele as RNC chair, both in the pure fact of his race and in his style of campaigning. The bets made on him were not followed-up; the realignment of politics based on Tea Party principles marginalised the impact of his experiment, at the same time sidelining strong candidates (like Pawlenty and Huntsman) who were moderate and demanding image-changes of incubents whose records of good governance made those overhauls impractical.
Overseas, we're seeing a grand gamble in the Tories over gay marriage; David Cameron is attempting to modernise his party on that issue by pushing for gay marriage, positioning the monogamous normal relationships that such legalisation would permit as putting to bed an issue that has long been used to bash the Tories while promoting the social stability that is at the heart of a conservative (and broadly mainstream) vision of society; by providing gay marriage, gay activists would be de-radicalised and enter normal society, and presumably would consider voting Tory. It's a bold move, the strategy makes sense (but it's not the only strategy that might make sense), and it seems a reasonable gamble. It's contentious within the Conservative Party because it marginalises some factions, or at least challenges them to redefine themselves in the same way Cameron would have the party broadly redefine itself. It likely will pay off in the long run, if the party isn't weakened too much from the stance. In the wake of Cameron's failure to secure reform of the House of Lords, it's uncertain whether Cameron has the clout to deliver it, but it's also an issue that will help shore up support of the Liberal Democrats, a coalition that's been on shaky ground because of the education reform surprise as well as the failed Lords reform. I confess to have misjudged Cameron; I was not of the impression that he was capable of risky leadership moves, and thought of him as being a useful puppet; if he actually is, then whomever is pulling the strings is thinking long-term.
There's another aspect to this gamble; the Tories have traditionally been a dud in Scotland. Using Scotland as a testing-ground for new (and popular) policy may increase the electability of their party there, plus it limits the ability of his party to mobilise against him, partly repairing the embarassment of the rebellion over Lords Reform with a hard-to-counter victory.
New York City recently celebrated one year's anniversary in legal gay marriage in the state, claiming that the legality has brought considerable business to the city and proclaiming it as a major civil rights advance. Let's hope to see this advance pushed rapidly across the nation, both because it is the right thing to do and because it pushes the fundamentalists further out of the mainstream; as they're also the source of much anti-intellectual activity in our politics and damage on issues that are in dire need of a fix (education reform, environment, ...), the sooner they are discredited and more fully they are marginalised, the easier it will be to make progress on a number of other issues.