When Mitt Romney ran for Senate back in 1994, he argued that the issue of gay rights "should become a mainstream concern," promising gay rights supporters in Massachusetts that he would do more for their cause than then-Senator Ted Kennedy.
That policy of social tolerance eventually paid off when he was elected governor in 2002. But since Romney began his run for president, he has walked back much of that support to placate organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association (AFA), anti-gay groups with a deal of sway over the GOP.
Unfortunately, Romney's promises of fidelity to anti-gay policies will be hard to repudiate and finesse as he courts moderate voters for the general election. His April appointment of openly gay Richard Grenell as his chief foreign policy advisor was a good start, but Romney quickly caved to the predictable firestorm on the social right and pushed Grenell to resign. Bryan Fischer of the AFA labeled the resignation "a huge victory."
But President Obama's historic May 9th announcement of support for same-sex marriage may be a blessing in disguise for Romney's efforts to capture the political center. Why? Because Obama's change of heart about same-sex marriage has essentially inoculated Gov. Romney against right-wing defections, allowing him to take a bolder stand in favor of gay rights and thereby increase his appeal to independents.
For despite rumblings on the right about the certainty of their support for Gov. Romney, they are clearly anybody-but-Obama voters. The president's recent announcement has only intensified their opposition to him, and they clearly have nowhere else to go. Given their intense dislike of this president, staying at home is not an option.
As for moderate and independent voters, their primary issues during this election are economic: high unemployment, skyrocketing federal spending, and out-of-control budget deficits. Many of these voters believe that Gov. Romney has a better set of ideas about to deal with these problems, but they are also repulsed by the hard-line social agenda of the Religious Right. Given their broad support for gay rights, an explicit move toward the middle on this issue by Gov. Romney can only increase his appeal among the voters who will make the difference between defeat and victory.
Romney's declared opposition to returning to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and his stated support for some form of domestic partnerships for gay couples, already set him apart from most Religious Right leaders. But he is behind most of the rest of the country on gay issues. If Romney wants to immediately broaden his appeal to independent voters, he should announce his support for:
- The same executive order outlawing discrimination against federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation that President George W. Bush issued.
Finally, Romney needs to "evolve" his stated position on a federal marriage amendment. Such an amendment clearly violates the conservative principle of federalism, which is why it has been opposed by Republican luminaries such as Dick Cheney and Ron Paul. Romney's critics will howl about another flip flop, of course, but again, where will they go? Dare they stay at home and invite a second Obama term?
This election will undoubtedly be decided on the issues of jobs and the economy, but the issue of gay rights may well play a measurable role for both candidates in November. Unlike President Obama, Romney will have a delicate balancing act to perform on this issue, and these five modest steps can help him do it.
David Lampo is the author of A Fundamental Freedom: Why Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians Should Support Gay Rights (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2012).