The story of Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who publicly acknowledged that he is gay in a conversation with reporter Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, is part of a larger American story that is still unfolding.
A Gallup survey released in May found that 52 percent of Americans consider gay relationships morally acceptable, up from 49 percent a year ago and 40 percent in 2001. But among self-identified Republicans, only 35 percent share that view, a sharp increase from 29 percent last year. As Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, an organization representing gay conservatives, argues, “I don’t think conservatives or Republicans are different from anyone else in American on this issue. We’ve seen public opinion moving on this issue for ten or twenty years.” The key driver, in LaSalvia’s view, is the growing number of openly gay individuals. “As more and more gay people are comfortable living their lives openly,” LaSalvia says, “people tend to be more supportive.” This certainly accounts for former Vice President Dick Cheney’s strong support for same-sex marriage, which he first hinted at in a 2000 vice presidential debate with Sen. Joe Lieberman.
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It is also true, however, that Republicans are far less likely to accept gay relationships than Democrats or Independents. According to Gallup, 61 percent of Democrats accept gay relationships, as do 61 percent of Independents. Though virtually all groups in the U.S. are growing more accepting of lesbians and gays, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is vast. It is all the more striking that elite Republicans tend to be far more favorably disposed towards embracing gay rights including the right to marry than grassroots Republicans. As a small but growing number of conservative intellectuals and donors endorse groups like the Mehlman-backed American Foundation for Equal Rights, many more conservatives feel angered and betrayed by the judicial effort to overturn California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage.
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• Jacob Bernstein: The Lives of Gay RepublicansA few decades ago, anti-gay sentiment was pervasive in both major parties. In 1978, California was fiercely divided by Proposition 6, a ballot initiative launched by John Briggs, a Republican legislator from Orange County, that sought to bar lesbians and gays from teaching in the state’s public schools. The fight against the so-called Briggs Initiative helped galvanize the national gay rights movement, and brought San Francisco civil rights activist Harvey Milk to national prominence.
And Milk had an unlikely ally in Ronald Reagan, the popular former governor and conservative icon who had very nearly defeated a sitting president in the Republican primaries of 1976. Though Milk had long since embraced the political left by then, there was a certain logic in the de facto alliance between the two men. Years earlier, Milk had volunteered for Barry Goldwater, not least because of Goldwater’s zealous individualism and commitment to personal freedom. Ronald Reagan was very much Goldwater’s heir. Born in 1911, Reagan, like many of his generation, saw homosexuality as a tragic affliction. Yet as a veteran of Hollywood, he also knew a number of gay men, some of whom he counted as friends. Lou Cannon, author of the definitive Reagan biographies, has written that he was “repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s.” Suffice it to say, opposing Proposition 6 was a political risk for Reagan, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
That year Ken Mehlman was 12 years old, and already a committed Reaganite who, a few years later, would become a devoted volunteer in Republican campaigns in his native Maryland. Decades later, as RNC chairman, Mehlman served as one of the architects of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection effort. Part of the effort was built around a series of ballot initiatives that sought to ban same-sex marriages. In conversations with Ambinder, Mehlman claims to have resisted this tendency, and to have made the case for civil unions and a more inclusive approach. But unlike his hero Ronald Reagan, he was unwilling to take a public stance that might jeopardize President Bush’s reelection, or, more cynically, his prominence in Republican circles.
For liberals who consider George W. Bush a profoundly odious figure, it is hard to empathize with Mehlman. But for conservatives, it is fairly straightforward. If you believed that only President Bush could lead the United States in its struggle against Al Qaeda and for a peaceful and stable Iraq, and if you saw the Democrats as advocates of economically ruinous policies, it stands that you would compromise even strongly held beliefs in the name of keeping the coalition together. But it couldn’t have felt very comfortable.
And so Mehlman is making the case for a Republican Party focused on a pragmatic approach to limiting government and maintaining U.S. strength rather than on social issues. As Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, observes, however, “there is something of a schism coming about.” Drawing on his reporting on the changing Republican coalition, Rauch suggests that Tea Partiers and fiscal conservatives see social conservatives as divisive, and would, like Mehlman, prefer to unite around small government and low taxes. At the same time, Rauch says, “social conservatives think they’re getting thrown under the bus.” Despite growing sentiment in favor of same-sex marriage, they don’t see opposition to same-sex marriage as a loser—and even if it does become a political loser, they see this as no time for surrendering.
In an insightful article on “The Tea Party Paradox,” published in National Journal late last month, Rauch argued that while the number of self-identified conservatives in the U.S. electorate has increased since 2008 by almost 5 percentage points—to 42 percent in a Pew Research Center survey—the number of self-identified Republicans remains stuck at 25 percent, and so “the leading growth category has been conservative independents.” On social issues, these “debranded Republicans,” as Rauch calls them, are not quite as fervent as Republicans. Pew finds that while 81 percent of conservative Republicans and 71 percent of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, only 60 percent of Republican leaners feel the same way. One possible upshot of Rauch’s take is that conservatives like Mehlman working within the party apparatus will find themselves outnumbered, if not outgunned in terms of resources and media heft.
Conservatives like Mehlman working within the party apparatus will find themselves outnumbered, if not outgunned.
As if to prove Rauch’s point about social conservatives feeling alienated and angry about elite conservative support or indifference towards same-sex marriage, Joe Carter, a well-regarded evangelical blogger, wrote an exasperated blog post on Mehlman’s interview with Ambinder for First Things. After excerpting a passage about how Mehlman voiced support for civil unions while serving as RNC chairman, Carter asks, “why do we continue to financially support institutions that actively work to undermine our values?” And even more pointedly, Carter writes, “How long will we let the minority within the conservative movement treat the majority like chumps before we say, ‘No more’?”
However much Republicans like Mehlman want their party to embrace gay rights, Joe Carter really does speak for the party’s rank-and-file, and that will continue to be true for years to come. But it won’t be true forever. In an essay published in the Washington Post’s Outlook section last spring, James Forsyth, political columnist at the London-based conservative weekly The Spectator, made the case that the British right had revived social conservatism by embracing gay rights and focusing on abortion and support for struggling married couples—gay or straight—with children. That is at least one vision for the Republican future. There are, of course, other possibilities.
Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.