02/07/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2012

What Conservatives Give Up When We Turn Our Back on Gay Americans

Later this week, the Conservative Political Action Conference, a three-day conservative gab-fest, will take up most of the Marriott Wardman Park here in Washington, D.C. Like a lot of other D-list political pundits with right-of-center politics, I'll be speaking at the conference. And in three days of receptions, lectures, and chats in the halls, I'll see friends from groups ranging to the mainstream (The Heritage Foundation) to the interesting-if-quirky (The Republican Liberty Caucus). But this year, unlike the last two, the gay conservative group GOProud isn't going to be in attendance. And to me this is a problem, not so much because of what it says about individual conservatives' attitudes toward gay Americans but because what it says about the direction of the conservative movement.

The issue, for me, isn't actually gay rights. I'm personally in favor of marriage equality and extension of employment discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation, but I understand why people of good will disagree with me. Although I'm sure that some honest-to-God, anti-gay bigots will show up at CPAC, furthermore, I don't personally know any conservatives who dislike gay individuals as people or wish them ill; despite the absence of organized gay groups, at least two people who are "out" in their personal lives will speak at CPAC this year.

The problem is this: because of a few loud voices, conservatives are turning their collective back on a group that should be natural allies and thereby dragging the conservative movement and Republican Party against its own stated principles. The Republican Party, at least in its own self-image, is the party of the successful: it's the party of free enterprise, strong defense, entrepreneurship, free trade, bourgeoisie morals. (The last is actually a good reason to support gay marriage.) It's not a party for people who want the government to give them more handouts. It's not the party for those who want a weaker nation. It's not a party for those who want to overthrow traditional institutions. As such, groups that do well in society, get married, and serve their nation should want to vote Republican.

And gay people -- at least those who are politically involved -- fit that label perfectly. Although there's some academic research that shows otherwise, companies involved in commerce, whose very survival depends on making the right guesses about their customer bases, tend to think that gay men and lesbians are more affluent and successful than the population as a whole. National magazines like The Advocate, every gay newspaper I've ever looked at, and the gay-targeted Logo TV network are all full of ads for high-end vacations, luxury goods, and the like. As controversy over gay service members demonstrated, furthermore, it's quite clear that plenty of gay men and lesbians serve in the military and that the numbers will probably grow now that they can do so openly. Thus, a political movement for successful people who favor a strong defense should see gay Americans as natural allies. It has nothing to do with values. Just mutual interests.

That, obviously, isn't happening. Instead, portions of the conservative movement that focus on other things are winning internal debates. A Republican Party that focuses on older people (far less likely to be openly gay) who rely on Medicare and Social Security, as well as on lower-income "values voters," cannot and will not be able to convincingly advance a platform that promotes enterprise and entrepreneurship while calling for less entitlement spending. Older people who get them, naturally, will want more government benefits and will resist efforts to scale back the welfare state. Younger, less educated people who see values under attack are likely to see benefits from free trade only in the longer term and will probably want a stronger social safety net to protect themselves from inevitable downturns. In my opinion, a large portion of gay voters, if they vote in alignment with their self-interests, ought to side with Republicans. And many already do: a gay man, Ken Mehlman, has already served as the Republican Party's chairman.

Gay Americans are neither numerous nor geographically concentrated enough to swing all that many elections. Opposing gay marriage and other things favored by many organized gay groups isn't inherently inconsistent with conservative values. (Holding reasoned debates over the wisdom of all social change is a key role of the conservative movement.) But a conservative movement that turns away groups that should be its natural allies will have a very hard time winning elections and governing in the future.