George Bush, directed by Karl Rove and assisted by Ken Mehlman, ran for president in 2004 on a gay-bashing platform, hooking his fate to a series of anti-gay marriage referenda in key states. As religious right-wing voters rushed to the polls to make sure gays couldn't marry, they carried the tide for the Republicans, reelecting Bush by a hair.
Watching Bush's campaign, wiley Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney began slowly establishing himself as a major anti-gay voice in preparation for seeking the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The immediate stimulus for Romney's increasingly anti-gay stance was the Massachusetts State Supreme Court's decision in November 2003 to allow gay marriage in the state. Although technically complying with the law, Romney supported an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage -- it never passed -- while lobbying in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban gay marriage.
Somewhere along the way, the American landscape shifted towards supporting gay marriage. Actually, we can trace the switch in American public opinion to this summer. Between August 2009 and August 2010, Associated Press polls went from 46% in favor of same-sex marriage to -- ta-da -- 52%.
And so, Romney's shift may not have been in time. Or, rather, not at the right time. Other Republicans have become more muted on the gay marriage issue. For example, few Republican politicians expressed disapproval at a federal judge's decision to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage. They may see the handwriting on the wall.
And now comes the vote on repealing the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," originally implemented by Bill Clinton in 1993. Led by John McCain, Senate Republicans blocked the Senate from considering the defense authorization bill that would have repealed DADT. And they were, to judge from McCain, proud of it. Every single Senate Republican -- except for Lisa Murkowski, who was in Alaska -- voted with McCain and the Republican leadership.
It takes some thinking to figure why the Republicans are so unified in opposing a pro-gay position that Americans support even more than they do gay marriage -- although wording can make responses fluctuate 10% in either direction. In this case, however, McCain and other Republicans can hide behind the ongoing Pentagon study of the likely military impact of repeal.
How long will Republicans care to hold out against granting gay Americans equal rights, with pro-gay support rising every month? It is difficult to say, since there in all likelihood will be more, probably many more, Republicans in both houses of Congress following the Fall elections. But even among that group, there will be increasing defections. Pressure was applied on Massachusetts' new Republican Senator Scott Brown until the end to keep him in line, and Maine Senator Susan Collins said that her "no" vote was based solely on procedural grounds.
And so, somewhere along the line Republicans will eventually shuck the mantel of oppressors of gays and opponents of civil rights for all citizens, at least on the issue of homosexuality. It will be both belated and welcome. But the delay will once more mark Republicans as "the party that doesn't like others" -- its enduring legacy.