Mitt Romney Stands Athwart As Democrats Make Gay-Marriage History

Romney supporters who also support gay-rights marriage comfort themselves that being against gay rights is not his priority. That’s not good enough, writes Democrat and gay-rights advocate Richard Socarides.

Last night in Charlotte, the Democratic Party made history as the first national party to offer a platform endorsing marriage equality for all Americans.

The move followed, of course, President Obama's personal endorsement of same-sex marriage in May. Both were important moments for me, here as a delegate for New York, and many others at the convention who have fought for full equality for gays and lesbians over many years.

It was a completely different scene in Tampa last week.

When Ann Romney spoke about her own “real marriage” at the Republican National Convention, I wondered if this admittedly likable woman auditioning for a role as first lady would someday try to stand in the way of my marriage. I thought: can Mitt Romney stop gay marriage? Does he even want to?

Some maintain that with respect to Mitt Romney and the Republicans, public opinion on gay rights has shifted so rapidly that the answers are not as obvious as they were even a few years ago. The Republican-controlled New York State Senate voted last year in favor of gay marriage (although most Republicans voted against it, they allowed a vote, and enough supported the measure to get it through).

Big donors, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, promised to support party members who broke ranks to back the measure, and that pressure from donors has also been felt nationally, where there is growing support for gay marriage from leading national Republicans. They include Steve Schmidt, the former McCain campaign manager; billionaire Republican fundraisers Paul Singer and David Koch; Ted Olson, former Bush solicitor general; Josh Bolton, former U.N. ambassador; former secretary of state Colin Powell, not to mention former first lady Laura Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Ken Mehlman, the openly gay former Republican Party chair, told me, "Republican support for marriage and equal treatment under the law is increasing because, not in spite of, our conservative values. Allowing adults who love each other to enter into civil marriage expands freedom, promotes family values like commitment, and protects religious liberty while following the Golden Rule." Mehlman, who was also political director during the George W. Bush White House, has devoted substantial time and effort to promoting gay rights since he came out two years ago (he even apologized publicly for the work he did promoting anti-gay ballot initiatives during the 2004 presidential election).

The message many younger Republicans are trying to get out was summed up nicely by Barbara Ann Fenton, a 31-year-old delegate from Rhode Island who told CNN, “For my own generation, a lot of times homosexuality is not the biggest deal in the world. And that's OK." Thirty percent of Republicans now support marriage equality, according to a Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation poll (a real start, though still far behind the 53 percent of all Americans who support it).

But the Republican Party is suffering from an ideological split personality. The same poll found that very few Republicans who identify themselves as part of the tea party movement, who are religious value voters, or so-called pro-government GOP’ers, support gay marriage. Only those identified as old-school Republicans and younger people who may be only marginally in the party, supported gay equality—and they may not represent the party’s future.

There were many signs during the Republican convention that elements within the party still want to very aggressively oppose gay-rights, and that a Romney presidency would set back the cause substantially.

First there was the actual Republican Party platform, The New York Times called "more aggressive in its opposition ... to gay rights than any in memory." Tony Perkins, head of the anti-gay rights Family Research Council, boasted that he was given the privilege of actually drafting the party’s positions on gay-rights issues. The platform endorses a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, criticizes President Obama for not defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and pointedly rejects the "use of the military as a platform for social experimentation" (an only thinly coded criticism of the repeal of the so-called “don't ask, don't tell” policy that kept open gays from serving in the military until just last year).

While many believe that Romney personally does not favor discrimination, the positions he has taken in the campaign—most notably his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage—seem very hard right in the context of today's rapidly emerging consensus of pro-equality views. President Obama, after what gay-rights advocates now pretty much universally knowledge was a very slow start, seems to have generally warmed to the idea that supporting gay-rights is not only is good policy but good politics.

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Romney supporters who also support same-sex marriage (and yes, there are more and more of them every day) say that gay-rights are not his priority. What they mean is that being against gay-rights is not his priority. And these people argue that this is progress. They note that the Romney campaign stayed silent after the Democrats came out for same-sex marriage in their draft party platform, and that not even the Chick-fil-A controversy tempted him to engage the issue.

But Romney has signed on to extreme anti-gay-rights positions, including a pledge authored by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage in which he not only agrees to support the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, but to appoint Supreme Court justices committed to “restraint” and “applying the original meaning of the Constitution” who will “reject the idea our Founding Fathers inserted a right to gay marriage into our Constitution.” A kind of anti-gay Supreme Court litmus test.

But most important is how a Romney Justice Department would handle pending Supreme Court cases on same-sex marriage, to be argued just months after the beginning of a new presidential term. President Obama, rather boldly, ordered his Justice Department not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and as a result of this mid-term turnaround, the government is now arguing alongside gay-rights advocates that laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are unconstitutional.

Romney declares on his campaign website: “As president, Mitt will not only appoint an Attorney General who will defend the Defense of Marriage Act—a bipartisan law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton—but he will also champion a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.”

I asked Evan Wolfson, President of the group Freedom to Marry and the founder of the marriage equality movement nationally, whether he though Mitt Romney could stop marriage equality or if he thought Romney even cared.

"He has staked out a position, whether sincerely or otherwise, to the right of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush,” said Wolfson. “We have no reason to think he's not serious.”

So while I welcome my pro-equality friends in the GOP to the cause—they see the future—I'm happier in Charlotte than I would have been in Tampa. And I hope that the country sticks with the president it's got.