A Party for Some

Election '04

The big tents have been well guarded at the Republican convention in New York. It took some doing to penetrate the several layers of security at the Log Cabin Republicans' Big Tent party Sunday to hear them complain about their own difficulty getting inside the symbolic big tent pitched over Madison Square Garden this week. "There are two Republican parties," Patrick Guerriero, Log Cabin's executive director, said to the crowd assembled at the Bryant Park Grill. "The party has to make a choice: Is it an inclusive Republican Party, or one hijacked by the radical right?"

He was highlighting the tension between a conservative base drifting so far into the outer reaches of ideological space that they're red-shifting from the Doppler effect, and the increasingly anomalous social moderates in the prime-time speaker lineup.

Everyone else on the itinerary at the Bryant Park Grill tried to celebrate the party's deep cleavage as "diversity," but the right-leaning imbalance was in evidence at the platform committee meetings held earlier in the cavernous and strangely vacant Javits Center, where the grip of the social conservatives tightened. They successfully dodged an attempt by the Log Cabin Republicans, along with fellow moderates from the Republicans for Choice, to soften language on constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and abortion.

The conservative forces also prevented the moderates from including a "Party Unity Plank" that would have put forward the sensible proposition that Republicans can agree to disagree on sensitive topics like family planning and gay rights. Adding insult to injury, the subcommittee on "Protecting Our Families" included a few new barbs in the anti-gay language with an amendment that specifically opposed any kind of benefits accruing to any kind of legal partnership between gay couples.

Anne Stone, the national chair of Republicans for Choice, was pissed. As was Christopher Barron, the policy director for the Log Cabin Republicans. "The American public has progressed on these issues a lot in the past four years," Barron said. "Unfortunately, this is a turn-back-the-clock platform." Janet McElligott, who is an active member of the Republicans for Choice, said, "If the party stays in the hands of the dinosaurs, it will become extinct." And everyone grumbled how the platform process was designed to specifically exclude them with what McElligott described as "Nazi-like precision."

All of which leaves one wondering: Why are these people Republicans?

"You know," I said to McElligott, as the gremlin-looking gray eminence Gary Bauer crept past and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist gave an interview nearby full of hollow praise for diversity-loving Republicans, "there was this other convention, up in Boston. I'm not sure if you heard about this whole Democrat deal. But they'd love to have you and your unity plank."

McElligott smiled appreciatively, but said she was more interested in reclaiming her own party. Similarly, Anne Stone, as disappointed as she was by her treatment at the platform committee, quickly began talking about "getting them next time in 2008."

Later, I shared some indignation with Barron about how the conservatives' claim that marriage is the bedrock of civilization is untrue, since what we think of as marriage today is in fact only a few centuries old; and how the right wing should theoretically be happy that gays want to marry, since it is an essentially conservative social institution. But when I tried to turn the conversation to Kerry, his eyes flashed Republican fire, and he started in on "the senator who makes Ted Kennedy look conservative." He wouldn't even entertain the idea of leaving the GOP. The Log Cabin Republicans will probably not endorse Bush, but that means no endorsement at all. And endorsing for the flip-flopper is out of the question.

What Barron wants is for the Republicans to shake off the conservative yoke and return to the social center. "What if," I asked, "the party leaders move further right?" "Then they'll be further out of touch," he responded. "And we'll take the fight to them again."

McElligott has a similar outlook. A few days after the platform meetings, I had dim sum in Chinatown with McElligott, and she was still angry. "They totally screwed us," she said while ordering dozens of plates for us in decent Mandarin, "and the anti-gay language was downright malicious."

Over the course of lunch, I discovered that McElligott, who worked for George H. W. Bush, opposes virtually all of the current administration's policies. Her one point of agreement was his policy in Sudan – "a welcome change from Clinton," she said. But although she's not voting for Bush, she still won't go for Kerry.

McElligott is a lifetime Republican, and the psychological inertia that keeps people from switching sides is strong. It was hard enough as a young woman, she explained, to tell her multigenerational Democratic family that she was a Republican, beginning with her grandfather, who, when he heard, pretended to have a heart attack and then kicked her out of the house. Leaving the party at this point would be like excommunication. Better to keep the faith than to lose it altogether.

As with all the moderate GOPers I talked to, McElligott harbors a sparkling vision of Republican potential, and it is apparently very powerful. Despite her resentments, she believes the pendulum will swing back. Like Barron and Stone, McElligott sees the current disconnect between the platform and the podium as a cynical ploy to fool the electorate. She even likened it to Goebbels' theory, improved upon by Mao, of "the Big Lie." But, also like Barron and Stone, she simultaneously saw the convention speakers as a silver lining – a glimpse into the future of the party, a return to the Lincolnian roots of individual responsibility, fiscal responsibility and prudent stewardship.

It's the same fable Mayor Bloomberg evoked at the Big Tent party by quoting from the man in the stovepipe hat about how "a house divided cannot stand" and citing the importance of the "politics of inclusion" and "a Republican Party true to its origins" – all themes further sounded by fellow speakers Arlen Specter, George Pataki and former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld.

When I suggested to McElligott that in the party's current climate, Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger are anomalies, she agreed. "But you have to remember," she replied, "that at one time Barry Goldwater was an anomaly too, a total pariah. And his ideas weren't in the platform. But he was persistent, and eventually his wing took over. That's what we have to do, and to do that we have to get a seat at the table."

Jennifer Stockman, from the Republican Majority for Choice, thinks that the moderates already have that seat at the table. Her group is more accommodating than the Republicans for Choice, despite having mounted a petition to bring their grievances against the pro-life people to the floor in 2000. We were standing at the entrance to the floor of the current convention when I asked why they didn't do the same this time. "We're more pragmatic," Stockman said. She was eager to talk to me, and was nicely turned out in a white skirt suit adorned with a herringbone pattern of black stripes. "And we want to stick to our focus of supporting pro-choice candidates around the country. We were instrumental in helping Arlen Specter succeed in Pennsylvania."

"Yes," I said, "but you had to defend him against your own party, because they're systematically culling the ranks of socially moderate candidates."

"But if we weren't there, who would have fought on our behalf? We're the critical voting bloc in a lot of these races," she replied.

"That certainly is true, which is all the more reason why you could wield way more influence," I said. "Don't you think that if you held your vote ransom, this one critical time, you'd have way more leverage?" – and it was at this point that I realized I was trying to convince Stockman that her organization should try my strategy for the GOP – "and if you actually helped defeat Bush, you'd wash away the extremists that much faster, and get a chance for the new leadership everyone talks about to come in." I almost said "we" when concluding, "You could really reshape the party then."

"An interesting theory," she said. No matter how interesting it was, however, the very idea of completely breaking ranks conflicted with the fact that she's been to every Republican convention since 1980. It's one thing to not endorse Bush, as her organization won't; it's another to take up electoral arms against your party's incumbent presidential nominee.

Like the others, she looked toward the future. "On November 3," Stackman said, "the real battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins."

But why wait? If moderate Republicans have no influence today despite their presence on the podium this week, there's no reason to expect they'll gain strength after the election, when their votes are no longer needed.

Meanwhile, they are losing ground. Stockman thought that the timid compromise the platform committee threw as a bone to the Unity Plank people – that the Republicans are the "open door" party and that they "respect and accept" different opinions – represented progress. The language was weak, however, well short of what they asked for, and even those four words were hotly disputed. Saying that the Republican Party has an open door, moreover, doesn't make it so – especially when some of its platform delegates couldn't even bear to say the words "family planning" and "gay rights."

So when Christopher Barron talks about the Log Cabin Republicans remaining committed to fighting for gay and lesbian civil rights from inside the party, I can't help but wonder at the cognitive dissonance. These guys are like the Kuciniches of the right: well-intentioned idealists, but completely powerless. It's tempting to dismiss them altogether as pushovers, but I also sympathize with their outsider pathos. They want to belong where they're not wanted – and we all know that story, right? The RNC has walked a fine line to keep its disparate constituencies together this week, but it's an even finer line that the party's determined moderates must walk to convince themselves that they belong in the party at all. As McElligott herself said, "They're doing everything they can to make us feel unwanted."

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