Bush Could Face Big Fight in GOP Over Gay Issues

Posted May 14, 2003 at 2:41pm

The Republican Party has a “gay problem” that could complicate President Bush’s re-election prospects. Bush wants to be moderate on gay issues, and that makes right-wing activists furious. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democrats and gay activists thought Bush was caving in to the right when his press secretary defended Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as “an inclusive man” after he said that legalizing gay sex meant permitting incest and bigamy.

But right-wing groups condemned the statement as “tepid,” demanding a full-blown defense of Santorum’s argument, and accused GOP leaders of “pandering to the homosexual lobby.”

Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, wrote that “if Republican leaders cannot mount a vigorous defense of marriage, then pro-family voters perhaps should begin to reconsider their loyalty to the party.”

The right has a catalog of complaints with Bush policy on homosexuality — from White House and top-level GOP meetings with gay groups to Bush’s signing a District of Columbia appropriations bill that funded benefits for unmarried domestic partners — and more points of conflict can be expected.

Even Connor expects the Supreme Court will shortly overturn the 1986 decision that Santorum cited as the basis for his argument.

Already, right-wing groups are angry that the administration declined to submit an amicus brief in the case before the court, Lawrence v. Texas, which challenges Texas’ law criminalizing sex acts between homosexuals. Meanwhile, a case in the Massachusetts Supreme Court and a bill in the Legislature may revive the issues of homosexual marriage and civil unions.

And there’s likely to be a major dustup in September 2004 over the Republican Party platform. In 2000, the right successfully inserted language declaring that “we do not believe sexual preference should be given special legal protection or standing in law.”

The Democratic platform called for enactment of national hate crimes and employment anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and “equitable alignment of benefits.” This year, six of the nine Democratic presidential candidates support state enactment of civil union laws.

Patrick Guerriero, director of Log Cabin Republicans, the GOP group representing gays and lesbians, says that at next year’s convention “it could get real tense between the far right and the East Coast wing of the party, particularly because it’s in New York and the state’s governor and the city’s mayor have histories of being against discrimination.”

Guerriero said, “There will be one day at the convention where the party decides where it stands on our issues. We’d like it to be inclusive and not ugly, but my guess is that no matter what the platform says, there will be demonstrations.”

(Disclosure: I spoke to the Log Cabin Republicans at their convention last weekend and received an honorarium.)

There’s wide agreement — on the right and among gay-rights groups — that the Bush White House and GOP leaders are “walking a fine line” or “trying to have it both ways” or “triangulating” on gay issues.

“They’re caught between the base and the need to be seen as moderate,” said David Smith, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.

“What you’re seeing is triangulation,” he said, using the term applied to President Bill Clinton when he distanced himself from liberal Democrats dominant in Congress in order to win re-election.

On the right, similarly, Connor said, “There is clearly, at the highest levels within the Republican leadership, a calculated strategy to embrace the gay agenda and promote that agenda.

“They think they need to take this position to endear the party to soccer moms and immunize it from criticisms in the media and appear to be a kinder, gentler White House.”

Connor said he did not know whether Bush was party to the strategy, but he said that “the White House does not embark on any strategy without Karl Rove’s approval,” referring to Bush’s top political operative.

GOP moderates argue — accurately — that attitudes on gay issues have become dramatically more tolerant since 1986, when Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that homosexual acts were “of deeper malignity than rape.”

Gallup polls show that in 1986, Americans favored keeping gay sex illegal by a margin of 57 percent to 32 percent. In 2002, they favored its being legal by 52 percent to 43 percent.

The party’s political problem is this: About 4 million self-identified gays went to the polls in 2000, 1 million of whom voted for Bush. Historically, other GOP candidates have garnered up to one-third of the vote.

A reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance could also help the GOP among moderate suburbanites who reel from “culture war language.”

On the other hand, as Connor put it, “Karl Rove himself complained [at a 2001 American Enterprise Institute event] that 4 million fundamentalists and evangelicals didn’t turn out in 2000, almost costing Bush the presidency.”

Which way will the party tilt? It’s not a good sign that Mary Matalin, former aide to Bush’s father and to Vice President Cheney and a figure identified by the right as part of the pro-gay movement in the GOP, defended Santorum extravagantly last Sunday on “Meet the Press.”