This week Ken Mehlman, former top Bush aid and former head of the Republican National Committee, declared he was gay. Mehlman, was one of the chief architects of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, which was won primarily by promoting wedge issues like anti-gay marriage amendments in critical swing states. With his new public admission of his sexuality, and with political trends moving towards popular acceptance of gay rights, what will conservative politics in the future mean for gay rights?
The story of the politics of division is a story that is as old as the civil war. For almost a hundred years after the civil war the south was considered a Democratic strong hold. Regardless of the candidate, the Democratic party could count on winning the Conservative Southern vote. However, that all changed in 1968. This was time of great political upheaval. Desegregation was a major issue in the South. The Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, had disappointed many loyal Southerners in his support of the civil rights movement. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon, a Republican, took advantage of the resentment within the Southern states and devised the Solid South strategy.
The Nixon Solid South strategy was simple. It would use code words like "states rights", "traditional values", and "law and order" to express to Southern white voters that Nixon stood for their values. The tactic worked, and it turned the once Solid Democratic South from blue to deep red. By the 1972 election, Nixon won almost every state in the Union except for Massachusetts.
Flash forward to the re-election campaign of George Bush in 2004, and racial civil rights divisions had largely gone away. However, the new target of civil rights weren't based on race, but based on sexual orientation. Ken Mehlman, told The Atlantic, that Karl Rove had devised a new plan for the Republican party to use anti-gay initiatives and referendums to help increase Republican turn out in the 2004 election in key battleground states like Ohio.
Even though Ken Mehlman was the Republican leader at the time, he didn't feel he was in a powerful enough position to go against the universal sentiment within the party against gay rights.
During the 2004 election only 31% of the US general population was in favor of gay marriage rights. The anti-gay initiatives worked, and George Bush won an easy re-election in 2004, even though his overall popularity was under 50% at the time of re-election. In 2004, George Bush won the mandate that was denied to him in the 2000 election.
The gay wedge issue was successfully used again by Republicans in the 2008 election in California by sponsoring Prop 8, which constitutionally banned gay marriage in the state, after the California Supreme Court ruled marriage rights could not be denied to gay couples. During the 2008 election only three states had legalized gay marriage, and still only 36% of the population was in favor of gay marriage.
However, since 2008 popular opinion about gay marriage, and gay rights in general have shifted dramatically. Today, the country is split 50/50 in support of gay marriage. A new CNN poll shows that 22 states currently support gay marriage. Perhaps its because gay marriage became legal in a heartland state like Iowa. The world didn't end, and no "straight" marriages were in jeopardy because Iowa legalized gay marriage. In the Prop 8 trial, the defense for Prop 8 couldn't come up with a single credible reason to deny gay marriage. Their only argument was that "straight" marriages were preferable to gay marriage, because they could produce children. However, they failed to reasonably provide an answer for "straight" couples who couldn't have children. Should they be denied the right to marry?
Ken Mehlman, today claims that he has struggled with his sexuality for years, and only recently decided to come out so he could support gay marriage rights. Even though he's late to the game, we should all appreciate his willingness to come out and support this fundamental right. If the Republican party wants to be the party of family values, they ought to all be on the bandwagon of gay marriage rights.
While it's almost certain that gay marriage is headed towards the Supreme Court, and more than likely will become the law of the land in all fifty states, there are far more issues our community has to think about.
Even if we get the right to marry, we still face discrimination in the work place. Congress has promised us ENDA (The Employment Non-Discrimination Act), but they have yet to move any legislation forward. Nancy Pelosi has promised us an end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", however, that has also stalled in congress.
With the 2010 election the Democrats will more than likely barely keep control of both houses of congress. Which means that we'll need Republicans like Ken Mehlman to stand up for gay rights. We'll need Republican support in the House and Senate to push these much needed bills forward.
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