Op-ed: How to Know When Republicans Really Have Changed

How the GOP treats Ted Cruz could be an indicator of whether it's sincere about a big-tent makeover.

BY Lucas Grindley

September 25 2013 11:52 AM ET

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt shocked Washington Monday when he decried the takeover of his party by extremists like Sarah Palin — whom he helped select while working for John McCain's campaign for president.

“Maybe we’ll start seeing our elected leaders stop being intimidated by this nonsense, have the nerve, have the guts to stand up and … to fight to take conservatism’s good name back from the freak show that’s been running wild for four years and that I have deep regret in my part, certainly, in initiating,” he said on MSNBC's Hardball.

What Schmidt says about standing up to wacko ideals from Tea Party types he also told me once about standing up for marriage equality. Schmidt was hired in June by the American Civil Liberties Union to build Republican support for same-sex marriage and eventually bring equality to all 50 states. He argues the obvious, that "you have got to win elections to make policy," and denigrating LGBT people increasingly means losing elections.

It's essentially the same thing he's now saying about standing up to Tea Partiers. If Republicans want to win elections, Schmidt would argue they can't let Sen. Ted Cruz and the most extreme views define the party.

If you haven't paid attention, Cruz is threatening shutdown of the government if Obamacare isn't defunded. He launched a quasi-filibuster Tuesday to delay the federal budgeting process, which faces an upcoming deadline. The effect is mostly to put Cruz on every cable news station. Now Republicans are in turmoil over whether they can overtly attack Cruz and make him stop "holding our government hostage" (which is how Democrats describe what's happening).

This is all part of the party's larger identity crisis. It is still deciding how much to police itself.

Since losing the presidential election, and losing seats in both houses of Congress during the last election cycle, the Republican Party has publicly wrangled over whether to change its ways. Party leaders worry they appear too anti-immigrant, antigay, antiwomen, and basically out of touch with issues Americans care about.

There is one way to know for certain whether the party is serious about its supposed makeover.

We'll know whether the party is changing when Republicans condemn anti-immigrant, antigay, and antiwomen comments from its most outrageous voices. With the next election, a new crop of outrageous idealogues is already assembling. There's gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia and his opposition to letting same-sex couples adopt children. There's Paul Broun, who is running for Senate in Georgia and who randomly assures us that "I don't want to pay for a sex change operation. I'm not interested. I like being a boy." Schmidt sees some evidence that the GOP is willing to crack down on its own caucus.

Take, for example, when Rep. Steve King said earlier this year that for every Mexican valedictorian who gains legal status in the United States, "there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." Schmidt notes that "all these leaders of the Republican Party did not ignore it, they condemned it."

It won't be long until we have an example of an outrageous antigay claim made by a GOP candidate. Schmidt says antigay policies are surely problematic, but even "a harsh tone" can turn off voters. "They sympathize with gay people, and that's why it has an impact, the Republican Party has always prospered when it's been the big tent party."

What LGBT Americans are often loathe to accept is that our fortunes are tied to the evolution of the Republican Party.

The party of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann and so many social extremists is right now deciding, for example, whether we can be discriminated against by employers. Activists want a trove of GOP votes in the Senate this year on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in order to send a message to the John Boehner-controlled House that discrimination isn't a partisan issue.

So long as one party is for equality and the other is its foil, LGBT Americans will remain second class. If marriage equality isn't going to be mandated by the court system (and the Supreme Court has already ducked an opportunity to do that), then the United States will have blue states where LGBT people are fully equal and deep red states where we are legally discriminated against. Changing that means convincing red state leaders that it's politically untenable to tread on us.

"Gay people shouldn't be used as a tactic rhetorically to excite the passions of people who don't much care for gay people," Schmidt said, returning repeatedly to his point that being antigay loses voters — and will lose even more in the future.

The Advocate makes a point of calling out bigoted ideas put into the world by lawmakers at all levels of governing, from City Council to Congress.  But even we get tired of it. There were recently so many wacky notions uttered out loud that an editor wrote a "Right Wing Roundup" just to keep pace.

Occasionally, a reader will lecture us for giving these statements a platform. The hope is that ignoring what's said about us will make it all go away.

There's something legitimate about that strategy. I like to think of myself as an "optimistic" person, the kind who isn't obsessed by what's unfair about the world. But nothing changes without first declaring it wrong.

Unfortunately, we can't merely declare it wrong just once. You have to keep objecting, every time it happens. Just ask the Republicans: Letting any public statement go unchallenged is dangerous because somewhere a voter is listening, paying attention on the sidelines, and that person might assume silence is agreement.

 

LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and two foster children.  Contact him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.

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