The Obama administration on Friday directed schools across the nation to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities — including bathrooms and locker rooms — that match their chosen gender identity.
The move, which affects all public schools and most colleges and universities that receive federal funds, plunges the administration even further into the country’s ongoing contentious debate over transgender rights.
Donald Trump had previously criticized the new, controversial North Carolina “bathroom bill” measure that requires people to use public bathrooms based on their birth gender (on the grounds that it was costing the state business), which advocates argue discriminates against transgendered people. But today, on ABC News, Trump also criticized the Obama administration’s directive, arguing: “I believe it should be states’ rights and the state should make the decision. They’re more capable of making the decision.”
And on NBC News, Trump added: “Everybody has to be protected and I feel strongly about that but you’re talking about a tiny, tiny group of population.” Trump did not explain how “everybody” can be protected while this “tiny, tiny group” is excluded.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, supports the directive. Her campaign spokesperson, Xochitl Hinojosa, emails me this statement:
“Hillary Clinton applauds the Obama administration for taking actions this week to stand up for the rights of LGBT people — and particularly for the rights of transgender people — across the country. As president, she will fight to make sure all Americans can live their lives free from discrimination.”
Meanwhile, the Post reports that the Obama administration directive has provoked “an immediate backlash from Republican officials across the country,” which means it — and transgender issues in general — could roil the 2016 campaigns, at least to some degree.
So how will this debate play politically? Dem pollster Stan Greenberg has offered a useful framework for looking at this. He wrote today that his polling shows that Republican moderates may be ripe for the picking in a Trump-Clinton match-up, in part because this constituency has had it with conservative culture-war-mongering:
Moderates stand out starkly among the groups that make up the Republican base, for two reasons: They are disproportionately college graduates in a white, working-class party, and they are socially liberal. They have been alienated from a party that won’t accept the revolution that has occurred in American social and sexual mores and move on….
According to polling we conducted at Democracy Corps in February, moderates make up a stunning 31 percent of the GOP base….Unlike much of their GOP peers, they have accepted the sexual revolution. According to our poll, nearly 90 percent say that their party should stop fighting the fact that “women and men feel free to have sex without any interest in getting married,” and half believe this strongly. Three-quarters say the party should accept legal same-sex marriage, even as an identical bloc of evangelicals and observant Catholics wants the party to fight it.
If so, it’s at least plausible that Republican moderates might also be turned off by anti-transgender measures and rhetoric. At the same time, though, a federal directive is something else entirely: many middle of the road voters might be uncomfortable with discrimination against transgenderge people but also uncomfortable with federal directives prohibiting it.
I asked Greenberg if he thought Democrats should embrace — or shy away — from the argument over transgender issues in general and Obama’s directive in particular. He emailed:
They ought to be forthrightly for equality of treatment. That is a defining value and part of the contrast with today’s Republican Party and presumptive nominee. That applies to equality in marriage, employment, and public accommodations. What the president is doing is right and should be supported. It is part of a much bigger statement about our values and country.
We now have an electorate where this is not just right and our values, it is politically advantageous. It builds our support with with the Rising American Electorate, but also with the more affluent and college-educated that give us rising support in the suburbs and growing metropolitan centers.
The “Rising American Electorate” is the growing Dem coalition of minorities, young voters, single women, and socially liberally college educated whites. And so, in Greenberg’s estimation, debates like this one not only might win over culturally moderate Republicans who are alienated by Trump, but also juice up the voter groups Dems increasingly rely on to power wins in national elections.
It’s worth noting that other Democrats are already seeking to target Republicans on this issue, with a caveat. The Democratic Governors Association, which seeks to elect Democratic governors, is currently running this targeting Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who is locked in a tough reelection fight — it’s backed by a six-figure buy in the Charlotte market:
You’ll note that this ad doesn’t directly engage on the underlying dispute over transgender rights, and instead primarily hits McCrory for generally trying to turn the clock “backwards” and for embracing a culturally charged cause that is doing damage to the state’s business climate. And so it’ll be worth watching to see if Democrats in purple states with a lot of culturally conservative voters opt for that approach, or whether they more fully engage the issue as a matter of discrimination against transgender people, as Greenberg is advocating, and as Clinton is doing.