“How can such a conservative party hope to win over moderate swing voters?” Reporters posed that question to Barry Goldwater’s Republican Party at the GOP convention in San Francisco back in 1964. Forty years later, at the Republican convention here in New York, reporters were still asking it this week.
The defining issues in 1964 were Communism and nuclear war; today, the burning questions are same-sex marriage and gay rights.
Republicans who support gay rights, organized in the 12,000-member Log Cabin Republicans, warned President Bush Monday that they will desert him in November if he doesn’t change course on gay rights.
Citing 2000 exit poll data, Log Cabin Republican executive director Patrick Guerriero said there were one million gay and lesbian voters who cast their ballots for Bush four years ago who’ll reject him this November, “45,000 in Florida alone” — unless he disavows the Republican Party platform, which seeks to outlaw same-sex marriages.
Critical of Rove
How does Guerriero explain what he sees as a self-destructive political strategy? Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, he said, is “obsessed” with four million evangelical Christians who did not vote for Bush in 2000 and wants to give them a reason to do so this year.
Guerriero unveiled a new television ad that attacks Sen. Rick Santorum, R–Pa., one of the leaders of Senate Republicans’ efforts to enact a constitutional amendment that would define marriage throughout the United States as only between one man and one woman.
Santorum and other supporters of the amendment warn that the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down state sodomy laws has language in it that might be used to force states to grant recognition to marriages between gay couples, no matter what state laws or state constitutions say about the matter.
“Our party can not have it both ways,” Guerriero complained. “We cannot have the voices of exclusion crafting a vicious and mean-spirited platform, while at the same time putting the voices of inclusion in prime time.”
Gay rights advocates and some news media pundits voiced their view this week that the prominence the GOP was giving in its prime-time speaking schedule to gay rights backers, such as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, might trick unwary viewers into thinking the Republican Party wasn’t opposed to gay rights.
“We can be the party of Giuliani, (John) McCain, and Schwarzenegger or we can be the party of (Jerry) Falwell, Santorum, and (Patrick) Buchanan,” Guerriero said at a briefing for reporters.
Sardonically, Guerriero asked, if Bush’s support for the marriage constitutional amendment “is such a great campaign strategy, why isn’t Rick Santorum the keynote speaker?”
Two hours earlier, at a breakfast for the Pennsylvania delegation, Santorum gave reporters his version of where gays and the GOP now stand.
Although the platform squares with Santorum’s opposition to same-sex marriage, he pooh-poohed its importance, saying he’d been too busy visiting with his Pennsylvania constituents in the past few days to have time to read it.
“There are very few voters who agree with 100 percent of the Democratic platform, and very few agree with 100 percent of the Republican platform,” he said. “There are a lot of issues — that have nothing to do with policy — that are why people vote for president. They vote because of leadership ability, they vote for courage, they vote for compassion, they vote for the personal characteristics of the president. To say the platform has this huge play over the American public, I don’t believe it does.”
Asked whether the Senate, which shelved the proposed constitutional amendment last month, would renew its debate on it before Election Day, Santorum said, “You’d have to talk to folks in the House (of Representatives). I know the House is considering bringing something up.”
Noting that just a few weeks ago, Missouri voters approved, with a landslide 71 percent of the vote, a state constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman, Santorum said, “when the public has a chance to get behind the curtain of the ballot box, it’s a very different thing than what a lot of the media elites would have you believe as to where America is on this issue.”
In no state have voters approved same-sex marriage; but last November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared same-sex marriage legal in that state.
Hijacking the party?
Log Cabin leaders repeatedly used the phrase “the radical right hijacked our party” both at their Monday press conference and at a reception Sunday afternoon honoring Pataki and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, another gay rights supporter.
Guerriero said the Log Cabin group will wait until it has heard all of this week’s convention rhetoric to decide whether or not to endorse Bush.
Chicago business executive Peter Kingma, who serves on the Log Cabin Republican board, told MSNBC.com at Sunday’s reception that he is not certain he will vote for Bush.
But Kingma sounded upbeat about acceptance of gay rights among Republicans in the future: “This is all about what goes forward, well beyond the next four years.”
Asked why he calls himself a Republican, if he isn’t sure he’s going to vote for the incumbent Republican president, Kingma said, “I vote for Republicans in local races, in other races. I’m waiting to see the outcome of the convention.”
He added, “I don’t think the Democrat party has been super-stellar on these issues either. It was under Bill Clinton that the Defense of Marriage Act was signed and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was implemented” in the military.
Although he opposes Santorum, Kingma agreed with him that the Republican platform wasn’t quite a do-or-die issue.
“The platform is very disturbing but this is far more complicated than just a platform,” he said. “We continue to have conversations with members of Congress and with lawmakers around the country who aren’t necessarily guided by the platform. ... It doesn’t necessarily affect any of our efforts going forward.”
Hoping for President Pataki
Looking four years ahead, Guerriero and other gay Republicans hope that a prominent gay-rights supporter, such as Pataki, would give gays a hero to rally around by running for the 2008 GOP nomination.
“To some of us in this room, the words ‘President Pataki’ sound damn nice,” said Guerriero on Sunday as he introduced Pataki to a cheering crowd at the Bryant Park Grill in midtown Manhattan.
Pataki smirked enigmatically, said nothing, and gestured for the applause to stop.
Making an implicit connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and sexual tolerance, Pataki told the crowd that, “We’re here this week celebrating America’s freedoms. Everybody … knows that there are those who have attacked us, trying to take away that freedom. New York will always be a target, because we are a symbol of those freedoms, a symbol of our respect for diversity, our respect for each other.”
For his part, Santorum tried to portray the Republican discord on gay rights and other issues as a commendable contrast with the Democratic Party, which he called “such a narrow party. They don’t allow any diversity.”
While it is true that Democratic proponents of the constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage were exceedingly hard to find at last month’s Democratic convention in Boston, it is also true that four Democrats in the House of Representatives did co-sponsor Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s proposed constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
Neither party has achieved harmony on the marriage issue.