Cabin Fever

On August 30, as the Republican convention kicked off in New York City, the Log Cabin Republicans, a group representing gay and lesbian members of the GOP, began airing an ad in New York City and in cable-TV markets across the country. The ad features images of Rudy Giuliani, Ronald Reagan, and other conservative icons who have staked out gay-tolerant positions. The ad ends with footage from the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a gay Wyoming teenager murdered in 1998, showing a sign reading “God Hates Fags.” CNN refused to air it.

But judging from Senator Sam Brownback's call to arms at a closed-door fund-raiser for Christian evangelicals on Tuesday, where the Kansas Republican urged the religious right to “win this culture war,” one gets the sense that the consensus on the platform committee may not be so different from that expressed on the Wyoming sign.

Indeed, the platform that was adopted in New York is a far cry from the carefully choreographed revival of “compassionate conservatism” on display inside Madison Square Garden. The public face of the party has been so airbrushed that one would think Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain represent the campaign's platform. Meanwhile, the campaign is working around the clock to keep its true face well-hidden (though it slipped a bit -- the invocation on the first night of the convention was given by a Mormon, Sheri Dew, who has compared the burgeoning gay marriage movement to the rise of Nazism in Germany).

The campaign's communications director chided The New York Times for being “not professional or appropriate” after attending the Brownback rally, which was ostensibly closed to the press (though attendees invited Times reporters). Clearly, as zealous as the Christian right is about protecting fetuses and the institution of marriage, campaign officials are even more zealous about keeping these views away from the media.

But to gay Republicans, a document calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is an affront. Log Cabin Executive Director Patrick Guerriero called the platform “shameful and outrageous.” According to the group's spokesman, Patrick Sammon, the platform committee is “controlled by the radical right,” and despite the support of moderate powerhouses like Arlen Specter, the ultra-secret platform committee (led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, but whose other members remain undisclosed) is deeply at odds with the televised moderation the GOP has put forth for national television consumption.

Nevertheless, Sammon is confident that the Log Cabin position represents the future of the GOP if it is to be a successful majority party.

“The party can't have it both ways,” he said. “They can't have a platform that tries to marginalize gay and lesbian Americans while at the same time trotting out moderate speakers.”

But so far that's been precisely the strategy.

The Bush campaign believes that 4 million evangelicals didn't vote in the last election and it needs to lure them to the polls with an issue that gets them fired up. But to Sammon, the gay-rights debate doesn't necessarily have to be a zero-sum game. Bush's neutrality, proven by largely ignoring the issue in 2000, didn't seem to alienate gays or Bible-thumping evangelicals. But the current turn to the right may do just that. By ignoring the 1 million gay votes for Bush in 2000, including 45,000 in Florida, the administration made a “strategic miscalculation,” says Sammon. And now it may pay for it.

The Log Cabin's 25-member board of directors will vote on whether to endorse Bush by the end of the week, and the board members have sent strong signals that the platform has jeopardized their endorsement.

“They underestimated the difficulty of someone proposing to write discrimination into [the Constitution],” said Sammon.

That said, Sammon is adamant that a decision not to endorse Bush is by no means a vote of confidence for John Kerry; Sammon believes that Kerry compromised his good record by coming out in support of a gay-marriage ban in Missouri.

“At least Bush can articulate his position on gay marriage in 10 seconds,” quipped Sammon.

But so long as Kerry continues to see gay marriage as an effective wedge issue the same way that Karl Rove does, he is likely to play defense and tack to the center, thereby opening himself up to further charges of flip-flopping. If the gay Republicans are right and the Bush administration has strategically miscalculated by marginalizing moderates within the party, another constituency may be ripe for the picking. But first Kerry must state his position in a way that clearly distinguishes him from Bush, so much so that Bush defectors consider giving him a second look.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Prospect senior correspondent.