GOP Politics Turns Positive Toward Gays
Deb Price, The Detroit News
Apparently seeing hard-core intolerance as a ticket to general election defeat, the most credible Republican presidential hopefuls are steering away from the anti-gay extremism that so alienated middle America in past Republican campaigns. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and John McCain have publicly vowed not to discriminate in their hiring and have signaled that they would welcome gay support.
While these Republicans' inclusive statements are tepid compared with the Democratic Party's embrace of basic gay rights, they're profoundly significant: This time, the top Republican contenders aren't terrified of the religious right and madly pandering to its prejudices.
Bush, Dole and McCain are casting themselves as reasonable, moderate and electable. Together, in a presidential field crowded with vocally anti-gay contenders, they're drawing three-quarters of all Republican support – a fact that ought to encourage Republicans seeking lower office to say "no" to hate-driven election strategies.
Rich Tafel of the gay Log Cabin Republicans sees a huge breakthrough. "It really is like night and day," he told me from Iowa, where he's working to boost gay involvement in the Aug. 14 straw poll. "You have three candidates saying, 'I want to be inclusive.' They've gone beyond just saying they'll take gay money."
The Bush and McCain campaigns have agreed to meet with the Log Cabin, Tafel says. Dole hasn't responded to the Log Cabin's request. However, she has stressed to NBC News, "If they sent a check to my campaign, I would not turn it away."
Elizabeth Dole's comment underscores that much has changed since the 1996 presidential campaign. The religious right is on the wane. Polls show a predominantly gay friendly public. And 1998 was a rotten year for extremist candidates. Plus, the memory is still fresh that snubbing the Log Cabin can backfire.
Kowtowing to the far right in the last presidential campaign, Dole's husband – GOP front-runner Bob Dole – sparked a firestorm of criticism by returning a $1,000 Log Cabin check immediately after the historic contribution was made public by my column. The Log Cabin has not yet written a check to any current presidential candidate.
Here's what's known of the GOP's comparatively moderate trio:
- Bush: The Texas governor has said that being gay would not disqualify anyone from his administration. "If someone can do a job, and a job that he's qualified for, that person ought to be allowed to do his job," he told the New York Times in response to a gay question. Yet, Bush opposes gay adoption, sodomy law repeal and inclusion of "sexual orientation" in hate crimes laws.
Longtime friend Charles Francis, a Washington consultant, came out to Bush in 1996. "And, right off the bat, he said, 'There will be times that I will disagree with you on a lot of issues, but I do so with total respect.' There is not an anti-gay bone in the guy's body," Francis told me.
- McCain: The Arizona senator successfully sought the presidential endorsement of all three of his state's openly gay Republican officeholders. Jim Kolbe, the GOP's only openly gay congressman, serves on his national steering committee. McCain voted for a 1993 hate crimes measure that included "sexual orientation." He bars anti-gay job bias in his Senate office. "I oppose discrimination of any kind. I seek every voter's support," he said on Fox TV when asked about anti-gay prejudice. Yet he voted to ban gays in the military, for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and against outlawing anti-gay job bias.
Gay Arizona state Rep. Steve May, a McCain backer, says, "McCain on a personal level is very supportive but hasn't yet translated that into his votes."
- Dole: Having never held elective office, Dole has a skimpy record. However, responding to an NBC News question, she indicated she would appoint "a qualified conservative" regardless of their sexual orientation to her administration.