Last month, former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt advised Republicans to “steer clear” of divisive social issues. This month a headline in USA Today suggested he had gone a step further, calling on the GOP to back gay marriage.
That headline, however, did not accurately reflect the content of his remarks. Schmidt merely urged that Republicans, in the words of a Washington Post headline writer, “rethink gay marriage:”
For the party to be seen as anti-gay, that is injurious to its candidates in places like California and Washington. . . . Republicans should reexamine the extent to which we are defined by positions on issues that I don’t believe are among our values and that put us at odds with what I expect will [be] over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters.
Given the support Republicans enjoy with social conservatives, it would be folly for the party to back gay marriage (heck, even the Democrats don’t back gay marriage), but given the need for the GOP to win back suburbanites and reach out to young voters, it would be an even greater folly to let the party be defined by such social conservatives.
The perception that the party’s focus is social issues is a killer to building a broad-based coalition that can win elections. And the GOP seems to gain that perception when it loses sight of the fiscal conservative principles which drove its success in the 1980s and 1994.
When we lose sight of those principles, for example when President George H.W. Bush raised taxes despite pledging not to do so, then the party’s social conservative principles seem to dominate as they did at the 1992 convention and in that fall’s election.
So, Steve Schmidt is spot on. We can’t let the party be seen as anti-gay. We need to better articulate our common principles and develop an agenda based on them as House Republicans did in 1994 with the Contract with America.