Will Republicans go gay in 2004?

After a suddenly gay American summer, the political temperament may be changing in Washington. Debates within the gangs of Republican strategists may be fomenting a different type of staged Republican revolution for the electorate in the upcoming year.

In what seems like a political lifetime ago, 1994, Newt Gingrich and his band of freshman congresswomen and men promised to “take the country back” with a no-holds-bar red run to the right. It was called a Republican Revolution (quite a mighty title for how little they accomplished). The following general election, in 1996, was a repudiation of this extreme social conservatism in the Gingrinchian [sic] style.

It was clear to Bush and his allies in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election that extreme swings to right or left were anathema to the voting public. The trend for voters has been, of late, to balance the halls of government with squabbling parties. Whether this is testament to the ideological centrality of the American public or its schizophrenia is hard to say. Either way, the Bush partners knew that a moderate tone would be the key to his election, regardless of the policies that his administration planned to implement. “Compassionate conservatism” was born.

Any media consumer of average intellect who watched the holy-roller-meets-achingly- down-home-multiracial-backyard-barbecue that was the Republican nominating convention was strangely thrilled. The Republican Party was awash in a new found grandness, that of compassionate do-gooders who had been branded by those dirty, yellow-dog Democrats as uncaring racists and homophobes. The new “reality,” as staged by the quintessential “reality” show of a party convention, was a boost to Republicans and independent voters who just didn’t want to feel guilty anymore.

By all accounts, they had been handed a brilliant political solution: compassion appearing awash with lights and red velvet curtains; compassion as religious reckoning without denomination (but incontrovertibly Christian); compassion as a central, required tenet of Americanism and Bush’s brand of revisionist history. In one political season, every Republican voter who desired could hate the sin and love the sinner – without engagement, without justice and, most importantly, without action. Every political declaration could be justified with, “but we care.”

“Compassionate conservatism” is the most lucrative political slogan since “I Like Ike.” I am serious. This brand of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and we’ll even hand you the boots” social policy was pitched picture-perfect for Republican and independent voters who had grown weary of the Republican Party’s homo hi-jinx and racial shenanigans. They wanted to laugh with Will and Grace and not at them. They had long matured from the “Long Duck Dong” jokes. They were ready to recognize the deeply disturbing history of a racialized, misogynistic and homophobic America – but they did not want to feel personally responsible (a predicament for more than just Republican voters).

In 2000, compassionate conservatism became not a path forward through this thorny social terrain, but a way out. The tensions of the electorate were coddled by the strategists and Bush, and then placed into a crucible of nothingness.

Now a new political season has begun. The Republican Party faces another obstruction on the road to George W. Bush’s re-election: an electorate that has grown decidedly more socially liberal. Women, gays, urban dwellers, young men and women with some college experience and, now, politically moderate straight men have become a leavening force to extreme right-wing rhetoric. These voters and those who associate with them are more cantankerous about the rights of their “gay friends” are more likely to delve into past racial injustices, more inclined to critique those casting aspersion on the “sin” than the “sin” itself.

Many have called the Schwarzenegger victory a momentary blip in the political drama of America. I am not so sure. Recently, former Sen. Mark Hatfield questioned his party’s credentials as “true” conservatives by lamenting their position on reproductive and gay rights. A Republican who is pro-choice and pro-gay-rights would not have felt welcome at the last Republican presidential nominating convention- ask Jim Kolbe from Arizona. Kolbe was resoundingly shunned by the party when he appeared at the 2000 convention; large swaths of conventiongoers refused to listen to his address about trade and commerce by praying.

Now the most populous state will do a dance with a moderate Republican whose social credentials gleam liberal. Will George W. Bush follow suit?

The big industrial states plus Arizona, Oregon and California are key states to an electoral victory for Bush, and these states have a tendency to be more socially tolerant. Will he move past the vacuity of compassionate conservatism to measures of sincere acceptance? Will he risk alienating the religious right (exquisitely organized but dwindling by the day)?

The chance for “choice” is nil, but for gays and others demanding more representation at the political table the chances are very real. Most importantly, will his election year slide toward the social center be sincere, or another production of pomp and circumspect?