Tom Daley
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Op-ed: Why Bush, Rubio Can’t Quit the Radical Right

Op-ed: Why Bush, Rubio Can’t Quit the Radical Right

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio epitomize the Republican Party’s inability to kick a dangerous, politically lethal habit. Despite polling that shows a growing majority of Americans are moving rapidly toward supporting equality and justice for LGBT people, these presidential candidates can’t help but pander to the one demographic exception to the progress: older white evangelical Republican voters.

No matter what their advisers warn, no matter what the research shows, it is a decades-old addiction that Bush and Rubio find impossible to quit. So even though poll after poll tells them sticking with the old wedge politics messaging could be the death of their party, they can’t help but think it’s safe to take one last hit.

That tug of war is why both Bush and Rubio launched their campaigns with a feint toward a softer, conciliatory approach to LGBT issues. Rubio has said he’d attend the wedding of a gay friend, and Bush says we should all show respect for couples “making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections.”

But their addiction to an increasingly out-of-touch base is why they can’t sustain these poses and have scurried back to their anti-LGBT talking points the moment they are in front of a conservative audience. 

When asked recently if he thought businesses should be able to discriminate against LGBT customers, Bush said, “Yes, absolutely, if it’s based on religious beliefs,” and in another interview he said that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage and that only traditional marriage can give “children born in poverty” a chance.  Not to be outdone, Rubio has said that marriage rights for gay couples pose a real and present danger to Christianity.

Their cynical strategy is to try offering these different messages to different audiences. The anti-LGBT rhetoric they serve up to their right-wing base is like the cigarette they smoke behind the trash bin hoping no one will notice. Fortunately, in the age of Twitter and the instantaneous blogosphere, they can no longer segment their audiences so neatly.

So why bother pretending to have shifted in their views only to publicly contradict themselves the moment they are in front of a conservative group? Because it’s not LGBT people or progressives or Democrats they are trying to fool. Their strategy is to sprinkle just enough hopeful quotes early in their campaign to mislead moderate Republicans and independent voters into believing they have evolved. 

We can expect their apologists to campaign heavily on their vacuous but vaguely gay-friendly quotes when talking to independents, moderates, and young voters — just like Jeb’s big brother’s “compassionate conservatism.”  These meaningless words give people who believe discrimination is wrong — like that close friend or family member who came to your wedding and is 100 percent supportive but who is also a “pro-business-Republican” —  just enough moral wiggle room  to vote for Bush or Rubio in the privacy of the ballot booth.

And if one of them becomes president, then what? Their records in Florida show us the best we could hope for is total neglect with occasional bursts of hostility. 

In Tallahassee, neither Governor Bush nor House Speaker Rubio ever lifted a finger to help us at all. They never even agreed to meet with representatives of the LGBT community or our families, and year after year they completely ignored the hundreds of high school students who traveled as many as 12 hours to our safe schools lobby days to ask for protection from bullying. 

For the most part, they just acted as though we didn’t exist and let their silence smother efforts to advance legislation. When they did mention an LGBT issue it was to defend Florida’s notorious and now-repealed ban on adoption by gays and lesbians or to campaign in support of Florida’s constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. 

Just like they were in Florida, neither of these two will be shy about feeding us to his party’s wolves whenever it suits him. If one of them becomes president, we can expect to never hear our names or our issues mentioned in the State of the Union address, unless it is to oppose the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or to support religious-based discrimination. Don’t bother checking your mailbox for that invitation to the Pride Month reception at the White House that Obama has hosted for the past six years.

This could have been the year the Republican Party broke from the ghosts of its antigay past. Instead the party leaders are like addicts ignoring the warnings, hoping voter suppression tactics and a big bankroll can score them one last election year fix.

Stratton 0
STRATTON POLLITZER is deputy director of Equality Florida, the largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

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