Speaking publicly for one of the first times since the end of the presidential campaign, John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt painted a dire portrait of the state of the Republican Party, arguing that the GOP has largely been co-opted by its religious elements.
"If you put public policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party," Schmidt declared. "And in a free country, a political party cannot be viable in the long term if it is seen as a sectarian party."
The remarks came in a passionate, roughly 20-minute speech before the Log Cabin Republican's national convention, in which Schmidt laid out the case for a far more open party -- one which did not consider gay marriage to be a "litmus test" issue. And while he made it a purpose not to offend social conservatives -- they "remain an indispensable part of the Republican coalition," he said -- Schmidt did not hide his concerns that religion had become the predominant thread of the GOP.
"If you reject [gay marriage] on religious grounds, I respect that," he said. "I respect anyone's religious views. However, religious views should not inform the public policy positions of a political party because... when it is a religious party, many people who would otherwise be members of that party are excluded from it because of a religious belief system that may be different. And the Republican Party ought not to be that. It ought to be a coalition of people under a big tent."
Earlier, in the question-and-answer session, Schmidt said he conveyed a similar message to Senator McCain, though he declined to elaborate on what kind of advice was given.
"My views were known inside the campaign on this," he said.
Looking beyond the issue of marriage, Schmidt's diagnosis of the GOP's ills was fairly ominous. "Our coalition," he declared, "is shrinking and losing ground to segments of the population that is growing, whether it is with suburban voters, working class, college educated voters, Hispanics, or left handed Albania psychics, the percentage voting republican has declined precipitously."
Schmidt warned, particularly, that losses among Hispanic voters threatened to "cost the Republicans the entire southwest," a development that would make winning 270 electoral votes a near impossibility. "Had Sen. McCain not been the nominee in 2008," he said, "I am convinced we would have lost the state of Arizona."
The road back would be arduous, he added, even if politics are inherently cyclical. "I think Republicans ought to embrace this 'Lord of the Flies' period," he said at one point, "when there is no clear leader in the party. And the problems of the party are not going to be corrected by any single big day event, you know, tea parties for instance. The problems of the party will be fixed over time and as we go through this period of time. There needs to be an opportunity for new leaders to emerge."
And while the chance for an Obama-backlash was apparent -- "should the recession grow deeper or longer" -- and the likelihood of a "national disaster or any number of other contingencies" remained, Republicans, Schmidt added, should not "take comfort from knowing our party's success could come at the expense of the country or rely on blunders of the administration."
The statement sounded like a rebuke to Rush Limbaugh's calls for the president's failure. But Schmidt declined to describe the brash radio talk show host's rhetoric as counter-productive to the party's efforts.
"I think people make their own judgments on that," he said. "At the end of the day, the party is not in the condition it is in because of even a talented talk radio host. The party is in the condition it is in because of the abdication of our principles on spending and a lot of other issues."
Indeed, the shrinking of the GOP tent, he prophesied, was due not to one individual actor but from a quasi-religious political brand that was "off-putting to many people." That held true whether in the case of Terry Schaivo, which Schmidt called "disastrous for the Republican Party," or gay marriage.
"If a party is seen as anti-gay than that is injurious to its candidates in states like California, Oregon or Washington or New Jersey or New York, increasingly even in states like Virginia and the mid-south," he said. "And to be a national party we need to be competitive in the northeast, for instance. I will argue that our party was a richer party when we had people, by no means conservatives but republicans, like Christie Whitman and George Pataki and all the members of Congress who have since gone extinct."