Are GOP Moderates an Endangered Species?
Are moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill about to become a nostalgic relic from a bygone era of nonpartisan cooperation?
One can simply look at Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s announcement on Feb. 28 that she will not seek re-election after more than three decades in the nation’s capital as an ominous sign of things to come. Snowe is among the six Republicans in the U.S. Senate who voted to repeal the military’s "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" (DADT) ban on openly gay and lesbian service members. She also co-sponsored the (thus far, unsuccessful) federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but the vast majority of her GOP colleagues were unwilling to meet her in the middle on these increasingly mainstream issues.
"As I enter a new chapter, I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us," said Snowe in a statement announcing her surprise retirement. "It is time for change in the way we govern, and I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the U.S. Senate."
Ronald Reagan and even Barry Goldwater envisioned the modern Republican Party as a big tent that welcomed people with diverse political viewpoints into the fold. Goldwater even had a late-in-life conversion toward gay rights and became a vocal proponent of repealing DADT. As for Snowe, her pending departure from Capitol Hill proves that today’s GOP certainly does not leave much room for moderation on LGBT issues. Or does it?
Some Help From Within
Snowe’s fellow GOP moderate, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, described DADT as a "stinky law that became more odious with every application" during her speech at the national dinner of the country’s principal GOP gay organization, Log Cabin Republicans, in Washington, D.C., last September. By good fortune, the dinner took place on the same day that its repeal became official.
Collins is a consistently and moderate voice within the Republican Party, but others have certainly raised some eyebrows.
A report in the Baltimore Sun on the eve of the vote on Maryland’s marriage equality bill that former Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied state Del. Wade Kach, a Republican, to support the measure caught many by surprise. His lesbian daughter Mary prompted the most prominently conservative member of the Bush Administration to back same-sex nuptials.
Another former Bush aide, Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, successfully used President George W. Bush’s opposition to marriage for same-sex couples to rally social conservatives during his 2004 re-election campaign. Since Mehlman came out in 2010, he has become an increasingly influential advocate for marriage equality. He has lobbied Republicans in both Maryland and in New York for support in their respective states. The former RNC chair also spoke out against a bill that would repeal the Granite State’s marriage equality law in an op-ed that the New Hampshire Union Leader published in January.
Like Cheney, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is a conservative Republican with a lesbian daughter. He acknowledged her in an emotional 2007 press conference where he publicly endorsed marriage equality.
Even former First Lady Laura Bush and her daughters, Jenna and Barbara, have endorsed marriage equality since they left the White House. The most outspoken member of a prominent Republican family on all matters gay, however, has to be Meghan McCain, daughter of Arizona Senator (and 2008 presidential candidate) John McCain. Daughter Meghan has vocally asserted that the Republican Party desperately needs to moderate its views in order to remain a viable political party among younger and typically more progressive voters.
Is this anywhere near enough?
Outrage even by many on the right over conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh’s obscene references to Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke suggest that even the most diehard Republicans acknowledge the need to at least slightly temper their overtly inflammatory rhetoric. Their positions on marriage and other social issues, however, suggest that the GOP still has a long way to go.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) continues to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act at taxpayers’ expense. Three of the four GOP presidential candidates continue to highlight their opposition to marriage equality, especially among socially conservative, anti-gay rights audiences. Opposition to so-called judicial activism remains a favorite talking point for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Former Massachusetts lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Richard Tisei, a gay Republican who announced his campaign against incumbent Democratic Congressman John Tierney last November, offered his potential Capitol Hill colleagues some advice during an interview with EDGE last month. "The Republican Party would be wise to go back to what our roots were," said Tisei. He pointed out that the GOP’s roots are actually in President Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. Tisei added that the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has also endorsed marriage for same-sex couples.
"For the Republican Party to grow, that’s what we should be espousing as a party," said Tisei. "We shouldn’t be narrow. We should recognize that we need to bring as many people into the party as possible with a positive message."
Snowe and an ever-smaller number of likeminded Republicans on Capitol Hill will surely be watching.
Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.