This Week's Vanilla

If the Answer Is Mitt Romney, What the Heck Is the Question?

By: PAUL SCHINDLER | With his convincing victory in this week's Michigan primary, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, put to rest, for now at least, speculation that his emerging image as a “flip-flopper,” especially on hot-button social issues such as gay and abortion rights, had crippled his presidential bid.

Romney's win also further complicated the Republican nomination race, with three different winners having emerged from the first big contests.

This year's Democratic field has uniformly embraced key LGBT and AIDS agenda items – with the notable exception of marriage equality – so the 2008 gay vote seems likely to go, as in past elections, disproportionately against the GOP candidate. But with Democratic victory never something to be taken for granted, even with the Bush administration's dismal poll ratings, the community has a clear stake in the outcome on the GOP side.

No one in the GOP race has done anything in the current campaign to actively court gay voters, but there are important differences in the candidates' records. And for gay Republicans – particularly the Log Cabin Republicans – the outcome of the nomination fight will determine whether they are in the game this year or, as they chose to do in George W. Bush's 2004 reelection bid, voluntarily sideline themselves.

Though Log Cabin (LCR) has held back from making an endorsement to date -and has no plans to change course before a nominee is chosen – it has been anything but quiet, at least regarding two of the candidates, Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, both of whom it has singled out for criticism.

Romney has been the group's primary target, in two ads with starkly different approaches.

In Iowa, the group aired a television ad on the Fox News Network that banked on distaste among that state's influential Christian conservative GOP bloc for the socially liberal positions, general consistent with LCR's, Romney had taken earlier in his career. Describing him as a man with “Massachusetts values,” the ad noted, “For years he's fought conservatives and religious extremists,” and said he “has opposed the gun lobby, even Ronald Reagan.”

But in New Hampshire, LCR mounted a radio ad about tax policy, on which the group is firmly in the party mainstream. Riffing about Romney's “Mitt-flops,” the commercial said despite his promise not to raise taxes as governor, in fact he socked New Hampshire residents commuting to jobs in Massachusetts with a payroll levy hike.

LCR has good reason to be piqued with Romney. In 1994, when he challenged Ted Kennedy's reelection to the Senate, he sent the group a letter saying, “For some voters, it might be enough to simply match my opponent's record in this area. But I believe we can and must do better. If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will.”

By 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its historic marriage equality ruling, the governor, by then clearly contemplating a presidential run, had changed his tune considerably. He aggressively backed efforts to peel back the ruling through a constitutional amendment and even dropped his initial willingness to trade civil unions for a curb on full marriage rights. Invoking a racist 1913 law that required Massachusetts to respect the interracial marriage bans in other states, he barred out-of-state gay couples from traveling there to marry, making a curiously anti-tourism argument warning against his state becoming “the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

In his final days in office, Romney used his bully pulpit to force the Legislature to take up a second approach to ending gay marriage through amendment, though defenders of the state court ruling prevailed in that vote.

Alluding to starkly troubling comments from Huckabee about gays as well as those living with AIDS that came to light in recent weeks, Patrick Sammon, LCR's president, told Gay City News, “I disagree with everything he says about gay and lesbian people, but I respect that they are views principally held. Compare that to Governor Romney and his cynical use of our families.”

Sammon argues that the LCR ad in Iowa played a critical role in cementing the view that Romney shifts positions out of craven political opportunism.

Despite Sammon's grudging acknowledgment that Huckabee speaks from his heart, he has hardly been immune to LCR criticism. The Arkansan has consistently taken positions in line with his view that homosexuality is an “abberant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle” – endorsing a federal marriage amendment, opposing employment nondiscrimination and hate crimes measures, and pledging to strip federal aid from schools exposing children to “homosexual propaganda.”

If all that were not enough, campaigning on Monday in Michigan, Huckabee endorsed an unspecified plan “to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”

Where LCR, which Sammon said is not going to respond to “every twist and turn” in the GOP contest, felt the need to speak out was about Huckabee's views on AIDS. In 1992, during an unsuccessful Senate bid, he endorsed the quarantining of people with AIDS, a position Sammon noted was “well out of the mainstream” by that point. The LCR leader said he was particularly troubled that the candidate doesn't simply apologize now for those comments, but instead has dug in.

LCR is more circumspect in its comments about the other three Republicans – Arizona Senator John McCain, New York's ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson – seen as credible candidates. Sammon explained that the group will not be discussing any private conversations it has had over the years with each contender. It's a good bet as well that LCR views any of those three as preferable to either Romney or Huckabee and is working hard to maintain its maneuverability down the road.

McCain has mixed his longstanding moderation with more recent efforts to placate the religious right that fiercely opposed him in his 2000 run against Bush. In 1999, the New York Times identified him as a supporter of hate crimes legislation, but he did not vote for the bill when it came up last year. He explained his opposition to the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody in terms of his philosophy about state versus federal criminal jurisdiction and the need for “the strongest possible prosecution and penalties… no matter what the intent.” McCain's campaign declined to offer his views about specifying sexual orientation as a protected class in such legislation.

Similarly, McCain was one of only a handful of Republican senators to oppose a marriage amendment to the US Constitution – a point noted by Sammon – arguing that resorting to federal jurisdiction was antithetical to Republican notions about the primacy of state authority. But, in 2006, he supported the unsuccessful effort to amend the Arizona Constitution to bar gay marriage.

A respected veteran, McCain has long been viewed by opponents of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy as a potential dream catch in the drive to overturn the ban on openly gay soldiers. But in several recent debates, McCain has staunchly defended the policy, arguing forcefully, with a clear eye toward scoring points, that the US has “the best military in history.”

Giuliani poses perhaps the most delicate challenge for LCR. With a widespread reputation as gay-friendly and a long history with the club nationally and especially in New York, the former mayor could point to policies on which he has stood with the LGBT community – if only he cared to. Instead, in contrast with his hanging tough on his pro-abortion posture, Giuliani has repeatedly backed off his gay rights record. During the past ten months, he reversed himself on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, saying wartime is not when a policy of this sort ought to be tinkered with, and he contradicted a 2004 statement to Fox News that he would support civil unions, criticizing New Hampshire's new law because it “goes too far” and is “the equivalent of marriage.” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told The Hill newspaper in Washington that Giuliani would support a federal marriage amendment “if multiple states began to legalize same-sex marriages.”

LCR is mum on these shifts. Asked about them, all Sammon would say was, “We are judging the mayor on his record and it is an inclusive one. His record speaks for itself.”

Of the five Republicans still considered in the running, Thompson probably has the least documented record, a fact that Sammon suggested offered opportunities for education. As senator from Tennessee, he voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and now supports a federal constitutional amendment, but only to bar marriage equality dictated from the bench. Arguing that he doesn't even think civil unions are a good idea, he said of gay marriage, “If a state legislature and a governor decide that that's what they want to do, yes, they should have the freedom to do what Fred Thompson thinks is a very bad idea.”

Sammon said he formerly worked as a reporter in Tennessee and got a chance to see Thompson up close.

“He's not on the extreme on social issues,” the LCR chief said. “He's pretty much a mainstream conservative.”