Given the way George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign demagogued against gay marriage, it’s amazing to contemplate how many prominent figures from the Bush team now support it. Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and John Bolton all back marriage equality. Ted Olson, Bush’s solicitor general, is now at least as well known for fighting California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 as he was for litigating Bush v. Gore. Ken Mehlman, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, came out of the closet in 2010 and now limits his political activities to championing gay rights.
Clearly, a fissure is opening up in the GOP. A majority of Republicans continue to oppose marriage equality, but, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, the party’s younger members, those 18 to 44, are evenly divided. That’s why, after years in which the gay rights movement has relied solely on Democratic support, the group Freedom to Marry sees a new opportunity for outreach on the right.
On Tuesday, the organization launched Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, an initiative to mobilize Republican supporters of marriage equality. It’s also hired a Republican lobbyist, Kathryn Lehman. In the 1990s, while serving as chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Lehman helped write the Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, she’s come out as a lesbian and turned against the law but retains her conservative connections. “We’re spending about half of our lobbying time and resources meeting with Republicans,” says Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director, Marc Solomon. “It’s a central part of our effort.”
So far, the growing conservative acceptance of marriage equality is hardly reflected in our national politics. Of 151 co-sponsors of the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, only one, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is a Republican. Mitt Romney has come out against not just gay marriage but civil unions and has pledged to support an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.
But Mehlman, a Freedom to Marry supporter, believes there’s potential in his party. “The nation is changing quickly, and conservatives are also changing,” he says. “That change is enhanced when young and old conservatives hear fellow conservatives, whether they be Dick Cheney or John Bolton or Ted Olson or others, make the case in conservative terms. That’s what Freedom to Marry is doing, and that’s what I’m trying to help them do. I refer to this as the nightingale effect. A nightingale will only sing if it hears other nightingales singing.”
In some ways, Mehlman’s view seems overly optimistic. Sure, elite Republican opinion is changing, but much of the conservative movement remains ferociously opposed to gay rights. Last year, CPAC, the country’s premier annual conservative conference, refused to let the gay conservative group GOProud participate as a sponsor. This spring, parts of the right revolted when the Romney campaign hired a gay man, Ric Grenell, as a spokesman; he resigned amid the uproar. According to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, Republican support for gay marriage has declined 10 points since President Obama came out in favor of it.
Yet the history of the gay marriage fight shows that rapid progress is possible. As Mehlman points out, when the New Hampshire legislature approved gay marriage in 2009, very few Republicans voted in favor. In 2011, though, 109 Republicans voted against repealing the law, leading to the overwhelming defeat of the attempted rollback. “I think the most important change was that people saw the impact of allowing people who love each other to be married,” says Mehlman. “Families were strengthened, communities were enhanced, and freedom was increased.”
“We’re far enough along in this movement that we don’t need to make the case to left-of-center Democrats. We are in a place now where we can make a case to conservatives.”
There have been other signs of Republican evolution. Gay marriage passed in New York thanks to a handful of Republican state senators, including Roy McDonald, who famously said, “They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I’m going with this.” In June, the Indiana GOP dropped a plank from its platform calling for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A lesbian member of the platform committee told the Indianapolis Star that the change was meant to appeal to younger Republicans. “They view marriage as something that should be open to everybody,” she said.
So perhaps in a few years, the national GOP will catch up. “We’re far enough along in this movement that we don’t need to make the case to left-of-center Democrats,” says Solomon. “We are in a place now where we can make a case to conservatives. That’s where there’s great opportunity for growth. What’s exciting is that there’s so much support already. It’s just not tapped.”