Big Tents That Are Hard To Get Into 

At the convention, GOP talks inclusion and walks intolerance

Thursday, Sep 2 2004

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.

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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.

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