Rusted Steele

By James Kirchick

Originally published on Advocate.com March 09 2009 11:00 PM ET

Michael Steele, the new
chairman of the Republican National Committee, was supposed to
be a breath of fresh air for the moribund Grand Old Party. Not
only has the first African-American leader of the GOP put a
more diverse face on an organization that consists largely of
older white men, but more substantively, his moderate
conservatism was promised to be the saving grace of a party in
desperate need of reform. Steele had been a member of the
Republican Liberty Council, a group of socially moderate
Republicans founded by former New Jersey governor Christine
Todd Whitman that tried to make pro-choice and pro-gay
politicos feel more comfortable in the party. Steele was also
unafraid to criticize the excesses of the GOP; when he ran for
Maryland senator in 2006 he joked that the "R" in
Republican was akin to a "scarlet letter."

In his campaign to
become party chair, Steele ran as a moderate. Not long after he
won a contentious leadership election that necessitated six
ballots, Steele
acknowledged

that his ascension presented an "important opportunity" to
reach out to pro-choice and pro-gay voters. But since taking
the helm of the RNC in January, Steele has proven himself thus
far to be a disappointment to those hoping that he would move
the party towards the center, especially on issues of concern
to gay voters.

First, there was
Steele's well-publicized row with conservative talk radio king
Rush Limbaugh. Attempting to neutralize a coordinated
Democratic strategy of painting Limbaugh as the leader of the
Republican Party, Steele referred to Limbaugh as occasionally
"incendiary" and "ugly" in an
interview

with CNN's D.L. Hughley. It didn't matter that this remark was
made in passing, or, for that matter, that it was true (even
Limbaugh's army of unreflective "dittoheads" cannot deny
it). The increasingly shrinking conservative movement will
brook no criticism of its loudmouth standard-bearer, and
essentially proved the Democratic analysis correct by rushing
to Limbaugh's defense and pressuring Steele to prostrate
himself at the host's feet, which he did posthaste.

But a more dispiriting
example of Steele's captivity to outdated social conservative
ideology was a little-noticed remark he made in an exchange
with another right-wing talk radio host, Mike Gallagher, about
a week before his spat with Limbaugh. Asked by Gallagher if he
favored civil unions for gay couples, Steele
responded

:

"No, no no. What
would we do that for? What are you, crazy? No. Why would we
backslide on a core, founding value of this country. I mean,
this isn't something that you just kind of like, 'Oh,
well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage.' I
mean, this is a foundational principle of this country. It is a
foundational principle of organized society. It isn't
something that, you know, in America we decided, 'Let's
make it between a man and a woman; oh, well, now let's
change our mind and make it between anyone and
anyone.'"

No.

Never mind the callous
way in which he treated the issue -- certainly, the mere
question

of whether or not committed gay couples should continue to be
legally discriminated against deserves a more measured response
than an inquiry into whether the person posing it should have
his head examined -- Steele's reply was firmly out of step with
the American electorate. A succession of recently conducted
polls have found that over 60% of Americans support either
civil unions or full marriage rights for gay couples. (Even
George W. Bush, who led the effort to pass the Federal Marriage
Amendment in 2004,
came out in support

of civil unions in 2004 and expressed disagreement with the GOP
platform.) Most analysts of social trends agree that this
figure will increase significantly over time as older Americans
with more conservative views on homosexuality die, while
younger and more tolerant Americans begin voting in higher
proportions, and general attitudes on homosexuality liberalize
across the board.

So it is not the
conservatives urging their movement to moderate itself on the
defining civil rights issue of the day who are "crazy." Put
aside the debate about the desirability of gay marriage;
antigay politics will soon become
anachronistic

and a surefire electoral loser. Some, like the reform-minded
former Bush speechwriter David Frum, have realized this fact
and

called

for a softer approach to social issues, particularly gay
marriage (full disclosure: I'm a contributor to Frum's website,


NewMajority.com

). But those conservatives willing to question their party's
position on gay rights have been viciously attacked, and
there's little indication that their views are influencing a
critical mass of the Republican Party leadership.

Last November,
according to exit polling, 27% of self-identified gay voters
chose

McCain over Obama (the actual number of gays who voted GOP was
probably far higher, given that many presumably did not out
themselves to pollsters). In a dismal year for Republicans,
gays were the only group whose support for the Republican
nominee rose from its 2004 level. There was good reason for
this increase considering the fact that McCain courageously
opposed the FMA, was the first Republican presidential nominee
to grant an interview with a gay news outlet, and seemed more
amenable than his predecessors on other gay issues. Yet in
exchange for this support, gays now see a Republican Party
chairman who, while promising a bigger tent, has just shrunk
it. The decline of the GOP as a national party continues
apace.