Politicos and pundits are frothing over the dark, rickety roller coaster ride known as the Republican presidential race. The Iowa Caucus on Jan. 3, which was really about selecting delegates to the Republican Convention in August, produced a couple of surprises: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won by eight votes—despite having decided to skip the grueling requisite retail campaigning in the socially conservative state—and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in second, besting ultra-libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul and a slew of social conservatives who all thought they would win: former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Bachmman subsequently dropped out, having won the Iowa Straw Poll but failing to get past five percent in the state in which she was born. Perry seemed to drop out and then jumped back in again right after a cabal of religious heavyweights decided to meet in Texas to pick their man. But it was Newt Gingrich who caught the spotlight with his unabashedly angry Iowa concession speech, in which he praised Santorum and promised to eviscerate Romney in much the same way Romney’s Super PAC had carpet-bombed Gingrich with negative ads.
Thanks to Citizens United—the Supreme Court ruling that declared “corporations are people” and OK’d unlimited anonymous spending by Super PACs in political campaigns—some estimate that billions, with a ‘b,’ will be spent by election day 2012. Ironically to many not beset with the miasma and circuitous thinking that has befallen ‘big thinkers,’ Gingrich was for Citizens United before he got clobbered and turned against it. Some pundits think Gingrich believes he may still have a shot at the nomination if the others fail and Romney is weakened.
Surely, there is more vetting to come of the GOP candidates. But Gingrich holds a special place in the minds of those who remember what used to be called “dirty tricks.”
Before there was Karl Rove, there was South Carolina’s Lee Atwater, the infamous political strategist for Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, among others, who was close friends with Rove. After ‘papa’ Bush was elected president in 1988, Atwater was named chair of the Republican National Committee and nasty hijinks ensued. Leading the charge was pontificating no-holds-barred troublemaker Newt Gingrich, who charged Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright with a controversial ethics violation that resulted in Wright’s resignation and propelled Gingrich’s career. Wright was succeeded by Tom Foley, a longtime congressmember from Washington state.
On the day Foley assumed the Speakership in 1989, the RNC circulated a memo co-authored by RNC Communications Director Mark Goodin and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich entitled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,” comparing Foley’s record to openly gay Rep. Barney Frank and intimating in a not-so-nice way that Foley was gay. Atwater defended the memo, calling it “no big deal” and “factually accurate.”
According to journalist Margaret Carlson, who reported on the incident for Time magazine, “For days, an aide to Republican minority whip Newt Gingrich had been calling more than a dozen reporters trying to get the homosexuality rumor into print.” One of those reporters was conservative columnist Robert Novak, who later printed the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame in a George W. Bush/White House attempt to smear her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson. Foley lost his re-election in 1995, and it fell to House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt to hand over the Speaker’s gavel to Gingrich after the angry Gingrich-led ‘revolution’ of 1994. A dark pall of divisiveness has hung over Congress ever since.
In a 1989 interview with Frontiers about AIDS activists protesting President George H. W. Bush in Century City, a very charming Lee Atwater emphasized that the Republican Party was a “big tent” party, open to all. Including, Frontiers asked, people who were pro-choice? Atwater said that while that was not the belief he personally held, yes, people who believed in abortion rights were welcome. And what about gays? Yes, everybody, as long as they adhered to the principles of the Republican Party, Atwater said, noting that he had gay friends, though they were not open about it.
With all the talk by the current GOP candidates about who’s the real conservative successor to Ronald Reagan, it might be useful to consider a 1981 interview with Atwater (see more in the Wikipedia entry on Atwater), who was then a consultant with the Reagan administration.
Atwater talked to political scientist Alexander P. Lamis (for a book, later reprinted in Southern Politics in the 1990s and reported on by Bob Herbert for the Oct. 6, 2005, edition of the New York Times) concerning his and Reagan’s thinking about the vaunted winning ‘Southern Strategy’ and its use of racism to win votes.
Atwater said, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
To be clear, the RNC leadership has evolved considerably on social issues, especially under former RNC Chair Michael Steele and with the insistence of Log Cabin Republican Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper and his former boss, Florida Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as moderate/conservatives such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the elected Republicans who’ve pushed equality in their states and families such as Sen. John McCain’s wife and daughter, Cindy and Meghan McCain. Additionally, there’s been strong advocacy from the American Foundation for Equal Rights, with major Republican players such as Ted Olson, David Frum and Ken Mehlman, Peter Thiel and Paul Singer publicly championing full equality.
Perhaps mindful that 21-23 percent of LGBT voters are Republicans, RNC Chair Reince Priebus appointed LCR’s Cooper to its finance committee last June. “I am honored to be a part of the Republican National Committee’s effort to advance a pro-growth, pro-free enterprise agenda, especially while working to elect and re-elect pro-equality Republicans to offices all across the country,” said Cooper. “Chairman Priebus has demonstrated that he believes inclusion wins, and that our party is strongest when we reach every community. I look forward to working within the party to help ensure we are victorious next November.”
Priebus also wrote a glowing thank you note for LCR’s big Spirit of Lincoln gala last September. “To defeat President Obama and to elect Republicans across the country, we need a Republican Party that is more united than ever. A vibrant, growing GOP will ensure victory in 2012,” he wrote. “As you honor the spirit of Lincoln this evening, I thank you for all you do in keeping that spirit alive. Now, more than ever, America needs the kind of leadership that Abraham Lincoln so wonderfully exemplified.”
This is the same Priebus who, as Frontiers and LGBT POV reported in January 2011, promised the National Organization for Marriage’s Maggie Gallagher in a candidate interview for the RNC job that he would be “helpful to ‘right to life’ and ‘defense of marriage’ groups.”
Though Cooper has not been featured on Fox News or mainstream media inclined to hear a gay Republican’s point of view on the candidates, he nonetheless has been advocating for progress, not regression, in his party.
“Politics is about addition, and divisive tactics can have a diminishing return after an election. In 2010, more Americans, including self-identified LGBT voters, cast ballots for Republicans in federal and state races,” Cooper said in The Advocate. “Republican majorities can again be achieved in 2012, as long as conservatives focus on the bread and butter issues that remain a priority for the general electorate. If social issues, however, remain a myopic priority for certain candidates, they will find, as former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour stated in 2011, ‘Purity is the enemy of victory.’"
Which is why, after all the drama and roller coaster seasickness over the Republican primaries, by the end of the Florida primary on Jan. 31, Republicans will pick ‘establishment’ candidate Mitt Romney as their standard bearer, because of all the candidates, he has the best chance against Barack Obama.
That’s what openly gay Iowa Log Cabin Republican Clinton Petersen thinks. “Gov. Romney spent less than three weeks in Iowa since his 2008 win. That he was still able to pull off a razor-thin victory in the state is a testament to his residual support in the state,” Petersen told Frontiers in an email. By contrast, Santorum is “a Washington insider who took a lot of earmarks and voted for a lot of pork projects. You can’t be the change agent if you’ve spent over a decade in the Republican leadership in Washington.”
Petersen sees progress since the time when the Republican Party refused to accept money from gay individuals. “The divide over LGBT rights, in my view, is a generational divide that will cease to be as prominent as the older Christian right age out of the party leadership,” Petersen says. “That’s why it’s important now, more than ever, for the Republican Party to make a choice: whether we’re going to continue the politics of cultural division, or if we’re going to make a serious play for voters of the next generation. A good example of this is Rick Perry—he gambled on an anti-gay message and it cost him dearly with primary voters nationwide. So, we’ve got to decide that soon, and I think it’s going to end up in our [LGBT] favor.”