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A Gay Tempest in the Tea Party Cup

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Is the Tea Party-era GOP having its first big family feud? The movement's disciples and many of the leaders they empowered will gather in February at the annual Reagan-worshiping Conservative Political Action Conference. In the shadow of the Gipper, the uneasy alliance of pro-corporate, antigovernment deregulators and Religious Right moralists has already begun to bicker.

CPAC, which bills itself as the largest annual gathering of conservatives, has a history of provoking tensions between the warring factions of the Reagan coalition, and now the Tea Party coalition. Last year, Mike Huckabee was a no-show at the conference because, he argued, it had become "increasingly libertarian and less Republican." In a seating arrangement that anyone planning a wedding would know to avoid, the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage was given a booth two spaces away from conservative gay group GOProud. The NOM and GOProud staffers manning the booths joked about having a "beer summit," but NOM later sent out a press release making clear that its opposition to all things gay--including GOProud--was no joke. Finally, in an astoundingly juvenile speech, a representative from California's chapter of Young Americans For Freedom stood up and condemned CPAC for allowing GOProud to be involved in the event. Met with a mix of boos and cheers from the crowd, the Young American taunted his audience, "the lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do."

If, last year, the extremist libertarian and extremist Religious Right branches of the conservative coalition were at least keeping their sniping to a minimum, this year their alliance is beginning to crack. And once again, GOProud and the anti-gay forces that oppose it are at the center of the feud.

In November, a group of Religious Right organizations, getting wind of the fact that GOProud planned to return to the CPAC in 2011, wrote to the conference's organizers informing them that they would boycott the event if the gay group was allowed to participate. In a curious compromise, CPAC's organizers said they would allow both GOProud and the far-right nationalist group the John Birch Society to participate. The protesters, including the National Organization for Marriage (apparently no longer interested in a beer summit), stuck to their boycott. Last week, in a great culture wars coup, they were joined by two of the nation's most prominent Religious Right groups, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America. Soon after, WorldNetDaily founder Joseph Farah chimed in with a call to "purge" the conservative movement of gays and gay rights supporters.

It's worth noting that GOProud is not a gay rights group -- though it supported the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the bulk of its legislative priorities involve fiscal policy. In fact, it split from the Log Cabin Republicans because, a spokesman said, the older group placed too much of a priority on marriage equality and hate crimes legislation. GOProud's opponents object to the group's identity, not its agenda.

The Religious Right's joint tantrum over the presence of gay people in the conservative movement is hardly going to derail CPAC, which has lined up an impressive slate of speakers, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Rick Santorum, and Mitch McConnell. These politicians, adept at harnessing the energy of the Religious Right and the bank accounts of economic libertarians, are not going to be scared away by the latest iteration of the right-wing family feud. But they would be wise to stop and think about what it means for the future of their party.

The battle over gay groups at CPAC represents one of the biggest stress fractures in the Republican coalition -- a small segment of the base devoted to denying rights and recognition to gay people is running up against an American public that really doesn't mind gay people serving in the military and in increasing numbers doesn't mind them marrying either. Although political expedience has kept anti-gay and even some gay groups allied to the GOP, as gay rights become an accepted fact of American life, the party will have to choose between including the excluders and including the excluded.

The same dilemma is beginning to unfold with other groups on the front lines of far-right outrage: the GOP's exploitation of anti-Muslim prejudice has already caused prominent Muslim Republicans to jump ship, just as its pandering to fears of immigrants has alienated Hispanic Americans across the country.

The GOP's coalition relies on the support of those who prioritize suspicion, fear, and the politics of exclusion. The fight over CPAC's guest list shows just how unstable that sort of coalition can be. The Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, by clinging to fights that pit groups of Americans against each other, will only further marginalize themselves. If the GOP wants to survive in an increasingly vibrant and diverse country, it should think twice before continuing to cling to them and their priorities.