CPAC Plays Host to a Conservative Movement at a Crossroads
For a gathering that seeks to foster debate and chart a path forward for the conservative movement, the silence on gay issues at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was deafening.
In the year since CPAC was last held at the sprawling Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Md., much has changed. Three Senate Republicans - Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) - have come out in support of marriage equality. In 2013, same-sex marriage was legalized in Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois. Same-sex nuptials have resumed in California for the first time since 2008, after the Supreme Court refused to hear arguments in the Proposition 8 case, and the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman has been struck down as unconstitutional, subsequently leading federal judges to strike down same-sex marriage bans in six states and counting. And the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed the Senate with the support of 10 Republicans - the most Senate Republican votes ever cast for a piece of gay rights legislation.
The LGBT-equality movement is riding a wave of momentum it has never experienced before, with many Republicans and conservatives no longer walking in lockstep on LGBT issues. A New York Times/CBS News poll released late last month found 40 percent of Republicans believe it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry. But that reality and divide was easy to miss on the stage at CPAC.
"I think throughout CPAC, if I’m being polite, there has been a sensitivity toward gay issues," said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. "If I’m being a little more cynical, a tiptoeing around gay issues."
Indeed, speaker after speaker - and presidential candidate after presidential candidate - took to the stage to articulate their message to the conservative movement over the three-day conference, with gay issues rarely mentioned. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was snubbed from being invited to last year’s conference for being too moderate, spoke about social issues he framed them in the context of abortion. (Christie upset some social conservatives when he abandoned his administration’s legal fight against same-sex marriage last year, thus leading to same-sex nuptials in New Jersey.) Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), who introduced an anti-gay marriage bill last month that would defend his states’ right to regulate marriage, articulated a tea party vision of limited government focused largely on federal spending and Obamacare.
"That may be the interesting point, what you’re not hearing about a lot," Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a supporter of Log Cabin Republicans, told Metro Weekly. "I think what has happened is anti-gay stuff has dropped down to near zero. There’s a separate debate on the nature of marriage, whether it’s a secular or sacred institution and what that all means. ... But certainly the negative is way down and I think that’s healthy for the country and the party."
But while the negative may have diminished in 2014, it certainly hasn’t vanished.
Rick Santorum, who has run for president with campaigns firmly planted in social issues, told the audience he didn’t want to talk about "redefining marriage," but about "reclaiming marriage as a good for society and celebrating how important it is for our economy." From whom marriage must be reclaimed Santorum did not say, but it was easy enough to read between the lines.
"I’ve been watching a little bit of what’s going on here at CPAC and I hear a lot of, ’We have to win.’ Now, we all know what they mean. They actually mean, ’We have to lose,’" Santorum said. "We have to lose those currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues that have been proven over time to give Americans the best chance for a healthy, happy life."
Dr. Ben Carson, who linked same-sex marriage to bestiality last year, told the audience that gay people deserve the same rights, but not "extra rights" to "redefine marriage."
And among the various organizations that erected booths at the conference was the National Organization for Marriage, as well as the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which distributed pamphlets depicting the group GOProud as a rainbow-colored beaver gnawing away at the social leg of Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool representing the conservative movement.