The GOP's dilemma: Winning over gay rights advocates could mean losing part of its base
When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) agreed to attend a fundraising dinner in Washington for the Log Cabin Republicans, many social conservatives were outraged. The group has long urged the GOP to be more accepting of gay rights, and some Republicans worried that the appearance by Cornyn, a party leader in Congress, would further legitimize its views.
The senator not only attended the Log Cabin event at the Capitol Hill Club last Wednesday, he also accepted an award from the group, becoming the highest-ranking Republican to do so. After his speech, though, the group's president, R. Clarke Cooper, privately told Cornyn he still wanted him to back a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the military. A day earlier, Cornyn, joined by 40 other Senate Republicans, had blocked a Democratic-pushed bill that would have changed the policy.
The strong views from both sides that Cornyn faced illustrated the complicated politics of gay rights for the GOP. As polls show that growing numbers of Americans back greater rights for gay men and lesbians, some well-known Republican figures, such as former party chairman Ken Mehlman,who recently came out, are calling for the party to shift its stances on such issues. But Christian conservatives warn that the GOP could lose its base if it endorses same-sex marriage or takes other pro-gay-rights stands.
The issue could become more important over the next year. Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail are likely to be asked their views on gay rights issues. Activists might push GOP leaders in Congress to approve bans on same-sex marriage if courts continue to legalize it, as the California Supreme Court did this year.
The issue of same-sex marriage splits both parties. President Obama and many congressional Democrats say they think marriage is between a man and a woman, even as a Gallup poll this year showed that 56 percent of Democrats back same-sex marriage, compared with 28 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Americans overall. (Fifty-three percent of Americans oppose such marriages, according to the survey, down from 68 percent in 1996.)
But Democrats largely hear criticism from one direction: Gay rights activists want them to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and support same-sex marriage.
On the GOP side, there has been a quiet debate since Election Day 2008.
After Obama's victory, in which he easily won the youth vote, some Republicans worried that their party's stance on gay rights could cost them a generation of voters much more accepting of homosexuality. Steve Schmidt, who had been top adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 presidential campaign, delivered a speech in April 2009 to the Log Cabin Republicans saying that the GOP risked becoming a "sectarian" party if didn't change.
Social conservatives quickly dismissed Schmidt's views, and other party leaders basically ignored them. Last year, as Obama's proposals on health care and other issues united Republicans against him, the party did not address gay rights.
Instead, GOP leaders reached a kind of truce. Cooper, the Log Cabin president, says he met with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and other leaders. He told them that he understood that the party was not likely to start backing same-sex marriage or other pro-gay-rights stances. But he urged them to avoid heated rhetoric - an approach many of them had already adopted.
"We take the attitude if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all," Cooper said.
But "moral values" activists don't want the GOP to take them for granted. When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a potential presidential candidate in 2012, said in an interview with the Weekly Standard this summer that he wanted the party to declare a truce on social issues and focus on economics, he was blasted by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and other social conservatives.
"Clearly, the tea party movement is an economic movement, but underneath there's an ongoing push-pull relationship between economics and social values questions," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "Right now, in a terrible economic climate, social conservatives are working very hard to say, 'Hey, don't forget about us.' "
This debate came to a head as House Republicans wrote the Pledge to America, the agenda they released last week. Social conservatives wanted an affirmation in the document of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Party leaders told them that voters are mainly concerned with the economy this year, and that they were not sure that the agenda should include such issues.
The Pledge ended up with a line in its preamble extolling "traditional marriage," a phrase that conservative groups like, but little else on gay rights issues.
Cooper said the Pledge was a "win" because it did not highlight measures against gay rights. Paradoxically, so did Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington.
"While it could have played a bigger role in the Pledge," Perkins said, "the Republicans' commitment to life, traditional marriage and religious liberty is a major step in the right direction."