Ken Mehlman's Regrets

In 2005, the chairman of the Republican National Committee went before the NAACP and told them that the "Southern Strategy" the GOP had been employing for the previous few decades was, for all its political benefits, a moral misjudgment. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong," he said. That chairman—Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election—didn't get a lot of love from conservatives for what became a virtual apology tour (he gave multiple versions of the same speech to African-American audiences), and it didn't seem to have any impact on his party.

And today, Tom Schaller interviews Mehlman about same-sex marriage, and hears similar notes of regret about the way Bush's 2004 campaign used the issue as a wedge to paint visions of a homosexual threat and get conservatives to the polls:

"At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort," he says. "As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I've learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I'll do my part to be helpful."

I have to be sympathetic to Mehlman, who came out as gay after leaving politics. As a closeted man back then (though his sexuality was widely rumored at the time), and one who had reached the apex of any political operative's career (running the president's re-election campaign) at only 38, it would have been a lot to expect him to stand up and say, "We shouldn't be doing this." The GOP has a long history of tolerating closeted men, so long as they stay firmly in the closet, but once you're exposed you're cast out (see Craig, Larry). Had he tried to change the campaign's course, he could well have destroyed his political career.

But I'll bet that within a decade or two, as support for same-sex marriage spreads, it will become the majority opinion even within the GOP. At that point—just as they do with race today—they'll do what they can to whitewash their history and pretend that they were the real advocates of equality all along.


Mm. I would have more sympathy for Mehlman if his changes of heart did not dovetail so neatly with shifts in national sentiment. He didn't decry the Southern Strategy until it became clear that the GOP needed to start reaching out to people of color; he didn't decry anti-gay rhetoric (despite being gay himself) until that rhetoric started turning off independents. I'm glad he's coming around, but I don't give him big props for it.

If Mehlman wants to make up for past sins, he should try and get out ahead of the pack on some of these issues. The GOP is still making lots of hay out of slut-shaming and going after women's rights. Perhaps he could start there.

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