Flurry of Anti-Gay Remarks has GOP Fearing Backlash

By Richard L. Berke, The New York Times (Front Page)

June 30, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – Prominent Republican politicians and strategists say they are troubled by a wave of harsh anti-homosexual oratory from fellow Republicans, fearing it could make the party appear intolerant and drive out moderates and economic conservatives.

The concerns are not limited to moderate Republicans. Many conservatives said the recent attacks on homosexuality by party leaders, candidates and local Republican officials could spur a reprise of the 1992 presidential campaign, when intramural skirmishes over issues like abortion turned off the wider electorate in the general election.

Several Republicans said the blunt comments, notably those made in a recent interview by Sen. Trent Lott, R.-Miss., stemmed from a determination among some in the party to score points with the right wing and energize hard-core Republican voters. Lott, the Republican leader, had likened homosexuality to kleptomania, alcoholism and sex addiction.

But many Republicans condemned the attacks as short-sighted. "The Republican Party has tripped over its own shoelaces and found itself on the defensive," said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist and former head of the Christian Coalition.

And Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., took issue with his colleagues who contend that such statements "might energize the party." He said, "I don't believe the party is likely to grow stronger or our voters more numerous through attacks on minorities, whether they be sexual minorities or religious or racial minorities."

Most accept that the remarks by Lott and Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, the majority leader, and many others reflect their genuine belief that homosexuality is a sin. What has changed is that there now is greater willingness among Republicans to speak bluntly instead of couching their beliefs in politically agreeable language.

The shift appears to have been spurred by conservative leaders, notably Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Dr. James Dobson of the "Focus on the Family" radio talk show. The two are pressing lawmakers to emphasize their opposition to homosexuality as part of a social-issues agenda.

"There's been a demand from some quarters that we aggressively attack the homosexual community," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., one of the most conservative House members. While he said the comments make some Republicans look like "strident, right-wing cartoon characters," Scarborough added, "There's not a real political downside right now."

Scarborough, who is 35, said his position on gay rights was probably not much different from Lott's or others who have spoken out. Yet he suggested there was a generational difference, and that younger people like himself were more careful about their language because "we have all had friends who are gay and understand that they are not the demons that they're made out to be."

Although some Republicans conceded that their party could not expect wide support from gay rights advocates, they said their biggest worry would be that the comments would offend so-called swing voters in the suburbs who are not particularly loyal to one party or another.

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, said his surveys show the attacks on homosexuality offend voters even in the most conservative parts of the South. "In a lot of areas, this is not a threat to their values and their hometowns and their communities," he said of homosexuals. But by raising the issue, he said, "it makes Republicans look out of touch, like they care about things the voters don't care about."

McLaughlin said his polling also found that the anti-gay oratory "makes Republicans look mean-spirited. Ronald Reagan may have been "anti-gay," he said, "but he wasn't somebody who disliked people."

William Pascoe III, political director of the American Conservative Union, also said the anti-gay oratory would benefit Republicans. "Anytime you have Republican leaders citing the Bible as the foundation for their beliefs," he said, "as opposed to Democratic leaders citing the American Psychiatric Association, I think we win."

But many Republicans condemned the attacks as short-sighted. "The Republican Party has tripped over its own shoe laces and found itself on the defensive," said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist and the former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

In his former position, Reed was careful not to attack homosexuals directly but instead capitalized on the issue by using code words like the coalition's belief in the "sanctity of marriage."

The risk that Reed and other Republicans spoke of could not be quantified. But they said they feared that the blunt comments could cost the party not only moderates who favor homosexual rights but quite conservative Republicans who might consider attacks on homosexuals mean-spirited or inappropriate for a party that should concern itself with more pressing legislative matters.

While leading Republicans insisted that there was no orchestrated drive in the party to go after homosexuals, there has been a drumbeat of criticism in recent days. The most notable came from Lott. His supporters said his remarks helped him with conservatives who were furious when he criticized the Air Force last year for ousting 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn on charges relating to from adultery.

Several conservatives said comments in support of Lott by Armey, who wants to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker, were intended to help him win favor with conservative House members who believe he has not been honest in acknowledging his role in the failed coup attempt against Gingrich.

"The Bible is very clear on this," Armey said, adding that "both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible."

In an interview published on Monday, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a longtime foe of homosexuals, stepped up his criticism. "They start by pretending that it is just another form of love," he told Congressional Quarterly. "It's sickening." Helms was responding to a new documentary that criticizes his treatment of homosexuals.

Asked about comments such as Lott's, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "I don't believe in discrimination of any kind." He said the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization, "should be part of our party."

The tensions are reminiscent of the 1996 presidential contest, when Bob Dole's campaign was thrown into turmoil when it returned a contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans.

But Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican Party, said the denunciations of homosexuality could be politically beneficial because "when people are honest about their views most people respect them."

Nicholson said of the comments: "I'm not concerned about what any of those leaders have said. I agree with them. I don't know that we fully understand very much about the sources of homosexuality or if there is a way to alter that. I've talked to some people in both the scientific and theological communities, and they don't seem to be very clear about it."

Earlier this month, Republican leaders in Texas barred the Log Cabin Republicans from setting up a booth at the party's state convention. Robert Black, a party spokesman, inflamed the issue when he likened the group to the Ku Klux Klan.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is weighing a bid for President in 2000, won praise from Reed and other Republicans by trying to tamp down the oratory from the state party. A statement issued by his office said, "Gov. Bush believes all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. While he differs with the Log Cabin Republicans on issues such as gay marriage, he does not condone name calling."

That same weekend, at a gathering of Republican presidential aspirants in Iowa, Bauer appeared with Reggie White, the Green Bay Packers star who had called homosexuality "one of the biggest sins in the Bible." And another prospective contender, Steve Forbes, appeared with the Rev. Louis Sheldon, a vociferous critic of homosexuals.

Bauer said he spoke briefly with Lott after he made his comments -- and he expressed no regrets. "I told him to hang in there," Bauer recalled. "But he was feeling OK. Apparently he got a lot of phone calls from people saying that they admired his courage."

As the debate continues among Republicans, this much is clear: Lott no longer wants to talk about homosexuals. Asked about his remarks, he replied, "I think enough has probably already been said about that." He then stuck out his tongue and sputtered into a reporter's tape recorder.