Nearly seven years ago, in an interview with journalist Rex Wockner, U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) had this to say about Republicans and gay issues:
Until fairly recently, the Democrats thought they were caught between the anti-gay feelings of the general public and the pro-gay activism within the Democratic party. Now the Republicans feel torn. People don't like gay-bashing....Fast forward to 2008, and Frank's remarks of 2001 are echoed, after a fashion, in an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal by Jamie Kirchick, headlined "The GOP Should Kiss Gay-Bashing Goodbye." (Full disclosure: Kirchick, who is an acquaintance of mine, interviewed me for and quoted me in a recent article in The New Republic.)
When I say the Republicans are no better than they were 20 years ago, that's based on the roll call. You're right, though. The Republicans got much worse, then they got better again. I agree with that. That's fair. They're better than they were 10 years ago, not so much in the number of votes we get, but in the diminution of gay-bashing.
They learned from Pat Buchanan in 1992. And from the fact that the passage of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] did not bring them any political benefits. ... People don't want to hear Jesse Helms calling their gay kids names, so the Republicans have got it on gay-bashing. Ten years ago they were actively trying to roll back pro-gay things when they happened; now they don't want to do that.
When I first came to Congress, gay rights was for a lot of Democrats a "no way" issue. After AIDS, gay rights went from a "no way" issue to an "oh, shit" issue. "Oh, shit, I've got to vote on this." Now, for the Democrats, it's an easy vote and for the Republicans it's become an "oh, shit" issue. But they still vote wrong. ... They're in this transition phase where they can't do anything right but they don't want to do anything wrong.
Kirchick begins his piece by noting:
Political conventions are memorable not only for what the party grandees say, but for what they leave out. What was noticeably absent from last week's Republican gabfest? Gay-bashing."Topic gAy" of the 2004 Republican convention was what was then called the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have written social policy into the Constitution for the first time since the failed Prohibition Amendment and its repeal. President Bush had beat the drums for support for the marriage amendment, which has never received a sufficient number of votes in the U.S. Senate to pass it along to the states for ratification.
This is not an insignificant development for Republicans. In 2004, gays featured prominently at the Republicans' convention and in their rhetoric.
Like Congressman Frank, Kirchick also remembers the debacle that was the 1992 Republican Convention -- the one in which a belligerent Pat Buchanan pushed the eminence grise of the Republican Party, former President Ronald Reagan, out of a prime-time speaking slot.
In contrast to the explicitly anti-gay rhetoric of 1992 and the softened, but still direct, attacks on gay families in 2004, gay issues in St. Paul were notable by their omission from speeches on the podium. (They were not, however, ignored completely; at least not by the Virginia delegation.)
As disappointing as the GOP's 2004 campaign was in this regard, it didn't hold a candle to the party's 1992 convention. The most famous speech to occur in Houston that year was the prime-time address delivered by Patrick Buchanan on opening night. "Pitchfork Pat" had challenged George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination and did surprisingly well for a candidate confronting a sitting president, winning the New Hampshire primary. His address that year is best remembered for his observation that "there is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America . . . a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself."
Mr. Buchanan made it clear that primary soldiers on the other, dark side of this "cultural war" were gay people. Telling the audience that while the "three million Americans who voted for me" disagreed with Mr. Bush on some issues, he declared that "we stand with him against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women."
In his concluding sentences, Kirchick suggests that McCain's attitude toward gay issues will, with his help, rub off on the rest of the GOP, and that the party might return to its "self-declared principles of individual liberty and smaller government." At the same time, he expresses some disappointment that McCain has not exhibited more leadership in this regard, by not going after some Republicans' "cynical stigmatization of an entire class of citizens."
The absence of antigay rhetoric has much to do with Mr. McCain; he is comfortable around gay people, and his old-fashioned sense of honor proscribes against making them pariahs for political gain. He also has a better record on gay issues than most of his Republican colleagues, having courageously stood up against his party by opposing the FMA.
Partly for that stand, he won the endorsement last week of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group that declined to endorse Mr. Bush in 2004 over his demagoguing gay marriage. Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain's senior strategist, spoke to Log Cabin on the last day of the convention, informing them that "my sister and her partner are an important part of my life and our children's life," and that "I admire your group and your organization and I encourage you to keep fighting for what you believe in because the day is going to come."
Republicans might also have noticed the opinions of their own party members and realized that attacking the "gay agenda" would prove unpopular. On the eve of the convention, a New York Times/CBS News poll reported 49% of Republican delegates were in support of either civil unions (43%) or marriage (6%) for gay couples. While 90% of Democratic delegates support either marriage (55%) or civil unions (35%), Republican delegates -- the party's conservative base -- are actually more liberal on this issue than Republican voters, only 39% of whom support either option. With 58% of the American public in favor of some form of legal recognition, Republicans are actually closer to the national mood, and are hopefully beginning to understand that Buchananite "cultural war" rhetoric is fast becoming a thing of the past.
One would hope, given the polling data cited above and other public opinion surveys of recent years -- as well as considerable anecdotal evidence -- that as a younger generation of Republicans, who grew up with gay friends and who look toward Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as the historical figures who best exemplify Republican principles, begin to gain control of the party's resources and its future platforms, this live-and-let-live philosophy will reassert itself in the Grand Old Party.
As gay issues begin to lose their divisive resonance culturally, it is only a matter of time before politics falls in line. After all, as Barney Frank said in his Gay Today interview with Rex Wockner, if a person doesn't vote exclusively on gay issues, "it's rational to vote Republican."