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.
This is not an insignificant development for Republicans. In 2004, gays featured prominently at the Republicans’ convention and in their rhetoric. In February of that year, President George W. Bush announced his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which would have written discrimination into our country’s founding document by stipulating that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman.
“Because the union of a man and woman deserves an honored place in our society, I support the protection of marriage against activist judges,” Mr. Bush declared from the podium at Madison Square Garden.
It would be unfair to ascribe bigoted impulses to everyone who supports such an amendment. After all, gay marriage is an unfamiliar concept and people are naturally resistant to change. But the rhetoric of those supporting the FMA often went above and beyond expressing concern for the state of a weakening social institution and depicted gays as a nefarious force from whose conjugations America had to be protected. Gays became the target of a divisive campaign aimed at stirring up the GOP’s socially conservative base.
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. 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.”
And while rightly criticizing the Democrats for barring the antiabortion Democratic governor of Pennsylvania Bill Casey from speaking at their convention that year, Mr. Buchanan went on to rail that “a militant leader of the homosexual rights movement could rise at that convention and exult: ‘Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history.’ And so they do.”
Other speakers, most prominently Vice President Dan Quayle, joined Mr. Buchanan in denigrating gay people. “Americans try to raise their children to understand right and wrong — only to be told that every so-called lifestyle alternative is morally equivalent. That is wrong,” he told the assembled delegates.
The image that Republicans projected to voters was that of a fearful party looking bitterly toward the past. This was hardly an advertisement for the cheerful, optimistic conservatism of Ronald Reagan, whose convention speech — his last major address to the nation — was overshadowed by the divisive rhetoric coming from the likes of Messrs. Buchanan and Quayle.
So it was refreshing to see that gays were not part of the agenda this year. Indeed, the only speaker to make mention of them was the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, and he did so only tangentially, stating that Mr. McCain “doesn’t want to change the very definition of marriage from what it has always meant throughout recorded human history.” (The same, of course, could be said of the supposedly gay-friendly Barack Obama, who also opposes marriage equality for gay couples).
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.
To be sure, the GOP still stands on the wrong side of history. Its platform backs the FMA, and goes so far as to declare that, “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” (not merely open homosexuality — which is barred by the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulation — but homosexuality itself). At a time when our country faces such perilous threats from abroad, attacking gay people who wish to serve their country in the armed forces is not just cruel. It weakens our national security. And while the Democrats running Congress have yet to move forward on the promises they’ve made to gay voters, the party is far more welcoming to gays than the GOP. Mr. Obama did refer to “our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters” in his acceptance speech.
As Mr. McCain made clear last week, the last eight years of Republican rule in Washington have forced many people to question whether his party actually stands for its self-declared principles of individual liberty and smaller government. In this regard, he criticized his party for succumbing to the “temptations of corruption” and wasteful spending. But he also could have gone after their cynical stigmatization of an entire class of citizens. That Mr. McCain declined to go after his party on this matter is unfortunate, if understandable, given the grief he’s caused them on so many other fronts. It may sound like cold comfort, but gay people have something to appreciate in the fact that, this year, Republicans left them alone.