05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Choice: React or Modernize

Former McCain campaign director Steve Schmidt laid out a modernizer case to the Log Cabin Republicans, and urged support for same-sex marriage.

It's been a strange week for the Republican Party, with noisy events pushing the old-time religion, a speech by a prominent consultant urging a new moderation, and back-to-the-future reactions to President Barack Obama's friendly gestures to Hugo Chavez and other critics of America.

Who will prevail? The reactors or the modernizers?

On the 15th, conservative media outlets like Fox News promoted the so-called American "Tea Parties" into lightly moderate success. There were a few, like the one I attended outside California's Capitol, where 3,000 made a noisy show of opposition to government, that drew into the four figures. Most were much smaller.

Dominated by what I call the Talk Radio Wing of the Republican Party, the events were mini-festivals of reaction, with a collection of anti-government folks, gun enthusiasts, anti-gay rights and abortion true believers, and neoconservatives. Public enemy number one? America's first black president, Barack Obama.

Think of it as politics in an echo chamber.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, excited by the echo chamber activism of the American Tea Parties, brandished the threat of Texas seceding from the United States.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a rather telegenic character, sparked more controversy by suggesting that Texas secede from the union. Considering how much federal money has been poured into Texas, that didn't look like a good deal. 75% of his constituents didn't buy it. A good thing, because I'd hate to be importing my cowboy boots.

This was par for the course for Perry, who appeared right after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told his California Republican convention in 2007 that it was past time for Republicans to get in touch with the center to avoid becoming a permanent minority. Perry disagreed with every point the once (and future) Terminator made.

Then former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who lost power after trying to shut down the federal government, and former Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in again. Cheney defending torture as an effective means of intelligence gathering. Gingrich saying Obama is weak for shaking hands with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and offering a tentative opening to the Castro brothers in Cuba.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was very upset with President Barack Obama for shaking hands with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

I don't know, maybe it's me, but I don't think that running on a policy of torture, or of resentment about the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, is a pathway to the future.

In the midst of this stuff, the guy who directed John McCain's presidential campaign, and ran Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election campaign in 2006, gave a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans national convention in Washington.

Steve Schmidt told the group, the leading organization for gays and lesbians in the Republican Party, on Friday that the party needs to be more diverse and should back same-sex marriage. It was part of a larger critique which is captured in this passage:

To state the obvious: the Republican Party needs to grow. A review of the exit polls and current demographic trends in the United States should make it clear to all but the most determined optimist that our coalition is shrinking, and losing ground with segments of the population that are growing. Whether it's with suburban voters, working class voters, college educated voters, Hispanics or left handed Albanian psychics, the percentage voting Republican has declined. Perhaps, the most alarming of these various and generally worrying results of the last election is the huge margin by which we lost voters under 30.

Having said that, it is not a foregone conclusion these are long term trends or even trends at all. They might just be the results of two lost elections, although I doubt it. And even if they do represent movement toward a center left political realignment, unanticipated events could arrest or begin to reverse them even in the near term.

I think the country is center-left, has been for some time, that the reigning media trope about it being center-right was a canard. What was lacking were politicians deft and forceful enough to break through and shrewd enough not to imagine that center-left is synonymous with left-liberal. I've discussed this with Schmidt many times, who I came to know after breaking the story that Schwarzenegger was making him his campaign manager. I described him then as something of a right-wing hatchet man. Which turned out not to be entirely accurate.

Some say that Schmidt, who ran a very hardball campaign into the Obama head wind for McCain, replete with rather irritating political trick plays that worked for awhile, until they didn't, is a johnny-come-lately in urging Republicans to support same-sex marriage. That's not true. While McCain continued his traditionalist opposition to gay marriage during last year's campaign, Schmidt spoke to the Log Cabin Republicans at the Republican national convention. Schmidt advised Schwarzenegger to oppose Proposition 8, which he did. He had advised Schwarzenegger to sign a gay marriage bill, which he did not.

Schmidt was very enthusiastic about Schwarzenegger's efforts on climate change and in promoting the biggest infrastructure investment program in two generations. In all this, he worked closely with Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial chief of staff Susan Kennedy, a Democrat who is also a lesbian. Which was not the sort of stretch that I had expected it to be for the former Bush/Cheney war room director, as Schmidt, who is married to a former Navy nurse, has a sister who is lesbian.

This doesn't mean that this one-time counselor to Cheney is a liberal. He's a moderate hawk on military issues and thinks Obama is spending way too much money. But he isn't anti-government and does think the financial sector got out of control.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney did an exit interview with ABC News. "We don't do torture," he said. "We never have."

The truth is that his view on same-sex marriage is not only a decidedly minority view in the ranks of active Republicans, it's nowhere near being a majoritarian view in the country. Yet.

The courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut found that same-sex marriage is a civil right. The legislature in heartland Iowa did the same. So, too, did California's supreme court, with the opinion written by the state's Republican chief justice.

But that right was taken away with the passage of Proposition 8 last November, a victory for conservatives fueled by what the winning campaign's consultant called "the gift that kept on giving," the feckless moves and statements of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who unwittingly starred in the very effective anti-gay marriage TV ads. Whether he liked it or not. So to speak.

With gay marriage losing even in California, at least for the moment, it's still a long ways off for America as a whole. Though it is inevitable, just as segregation could not stand in the long run of history.

So the weight of the past will hang especially heavy over the Republicans. While many may privately agree with Schmidt, a moderate conservative, the party's center of gravity is far to the right.

The Conservative Party in Britain faced a similar choice.

Routed by Tony Blair and "New Labour" in 1997, the Tories could stick with their Thatcherite past, and probably lose for a long time, or move in a new direction. Which was much the same choice that the Labour Party faced before the advent of Blair and his frenemy ally, Gordon Brown.

They chose at first to stay the course, and the Tories have been out of power in Britain for a dozen years. It's only now, with modernizer David Cameron -- a sort of Blair doppelganger of the moderate right -- in as party leader that the Conservatives are highly competitive again in the UK.

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