The Conservative Political Action Conference starts this week, and with it, an annual ritual that measures the movement’s attitude toward gay rights: Will CPAC let conservative gay groups participate?
The answer, this year, is: sort of.
Last Thursday, Log Cabin Republicans, the country’s leading gay conservative organization, sent out a blistering press release attacking CPAC for its “exclusion” of the group from the proceedings, which, appropriately enough, will be held at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Maryland.
As in years past, CPAC was planning to do what it had always done: ban gay conservative organizations from formal participation or sponsorship, but allow members of such organizations to purchase tickets as private individuals, thereby claiming that it was not discriminating. These are the terms that CPAC had imposed last year on the short-lived gay conservative group GOProud, a move that led to fissures within the organization and contributed to its demise.
As of last week, it appeared that this year would be no different. “Make no mistake: LCR is actively being prohibited from sponsoring CPAC,” Log Cabin Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo said in the release. “For our organization, this has always been about contributing to CPAC as sponsors or in some recognized capacity.”
But conversations between Angelo and CPAC leaders over the weekend led to a compromise that appears to have made both sides happy: Angelo will speak on a panel entitled “Putin’s Russia: A New Cold War?” He will focus on the Russian government’s assault on its gay and lesbian citizens, in the form of laws that prohibit “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors” and prevent gays from adopting children.
CPAC allowing Log Cabin to address the subject of Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is a win-win for both organizations. With the exception of a small group of extremist social conservatives who admire Putin’s supposed defense of “traditional values,” Russia has always been deeply unpopular among grassroots American conservative activists, an animosity that dates back to the Cold War struggle against communism and was a primary reason for the founding of the conservative movement.
While the Russian government may have changed its communist stripes for nationalist ones, its invasion of Ukraine, domestic repression, and bellicose anti-Americanism have left most American conservatives with the impression that the Russians haven’t changed all that much. And so bashing Moscow over its “atrocious” human rights record, in the words of CPAC spokesman Ross Hemminger, is a cause around which most conservatives can rally, regardless of who’s making the case.
At the same time, however, CPAC’s move is a bit of a dodge. Log Cabin’s primary function, after all, is to change the GOP from within and make it more attractive to gay and straight voters for whom gay rights are an important issue. Putting Angelo on a panel where he can direct his fire at Moscow diverts it from targets within the party who oppose Log Cabin’s equality agenda—that is, most elected Republican officials and all of the major potential presidential candidates, none of whom support gay marriage.
When I asked Angelo if he felt that Log Cabin’s message might be diluted by his being relegated to a speaking slot on foreign policy, he replied that his is “a multi-dimensional organization,” and that the panel discussion will prove to be an “opportunity for Log Cabin Republicans to show even social conservatives at CPAC that we have common ground with them.”
Regardless, bringing Log Cabin into the fold is also good politics. That’s the only conclusion one can derive from a poll released last week by NBC News and Marist College, which found that half of likely GOP caucus and primary voters in the key early election states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina would find a candidate’s opposition to gay marriage either “totally” or “mostly” unacceptable. Jeb Bush, who opposed same-sex unions while governor of Florida, recently sent an important welcoming signal to gays by hiring the openly gay Republican operative Tim Miller as communications director of his Right to Rise PAC.
This is quite the sea change in public opinion from just 10 years ago, when Bush’s younger brother proposed an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage, and ginned up support for state-level amendments doing the same in an effort to win the 2004 presidential election. At the time, the majority of Republican and independent voters were opposed to gay unions of any sort and “protecting marriage” was a sure way to fire up the GOP base. Now that the political landscape has shifted so dramatically on the issue, it will be interesting to see if, and how, Bush and the other potential candidates adapt to changing public opinion.
And CPAC, as the vanguard of the conservative movement, is in many ways a reflection of that change. Ultimately, the organization has belatedly taken the advice of one of the American political figures its members despise most: Lyndon B. Johnson. To paraphrase the architect of the Great Society, CPAC has come to realize that it’s better to have Log Cabin inside the conservative tent pissing out, rather than outside and pissing in.
When I asked Angelo why he thinks CPAC ultimately agreed to let Log Cabin participate, he coyly deployed the adage apocryphally attributed to the instigators of the Bolshevik Revolution: “Sometimes you have to crack some eggs to make an omelet and I think CPAC is going to be one hell of an omelet this year.”
An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that this is the first time a gay group has formally participated in CPAC. In 2010, a representative of a now-defunct gay group spoke at the confrence.