The GOP is in a pickle. You can only finesse extremists for so long.
Republicans are furiously trying to downplay the social issues that are so deeply important to their Christianist base; first because Romney has so firmly come down on so many sides of them, and it’s hard to keep the true believers focused on the right answers he’s given; but even more because the party leaders know that this whole religious thing is ready to collapse.
There are plenty of religious moderates in both parties, and they’re not the problem. The problem is that the GOP has been actively courting the know-nothings, the ignorant, the crackpots and screwballs who take pride in their shallow thinking and insensitivity. And now that they have these folks as a critical part of their voting base, they are stuck with loser candidates like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and others.
The Democrats clearly have their shallow and insensitive interest groups that need hothouse political care, but there is a very big difference. Labor, environmentalists, women’s groups, etc., are all motivated by narrow self-interest – exactly the kind of self-interest this nation’s founders anticipated and even expected. No nation or system of government known to them was without factions, and their sensible response was to provide as many checks and balances on those factions as they could reasonably imagine.
They saw religion, though, as a special case. The founders not only provided for the free exercise of religion, but also the prohibition on government establishment of religion. That is because of the special factionalism and intensity that religion inspires. The establishment clause not only protects government, itself, from religious fanaticism, it protects religions from one another, as well. Any religion that could take hold of the levers of political power could far too easily use it against unbelievers or heretics. The Puritans fled to this country for exactly that reason.
But there is no establishment clause for political parties, and the GOP has unwisely cultivated conservative religion, in particular, without understanding its inherent political pandemonium.
It is one thing to oppose abortion as a moral matter. But in the 21st Century, it is something else entirely to take the position that contraception is the same moral issue. The fine theological gradations necessary are not just inconsistent with American values, they are antithetical to them. And just as a matter of raw politics, the use of contraception by American women at some point in their life is within the margin of error of being 100%. The Vatican can get away with taking a position that only a fraction of its followers take seriously; it’s much harder for an American political party to pull that off.
It is that sophistry of the unsophisticated that got Todd Akin where he wound up. The debate over “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape is bad enough. But let’s not forget that he really did say he thinks women’s bodies can make a moral judgment along those lines, and “shut down” the bad pregnancies. This from a man who represents Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
There is a good, even a respectable debate to be had over abortion, but these folks prevent Republicans from engaging in it. Party leaders were virtually unanimous in trying to get Akin to leave the race precisely because they do not want to have the debate on these terms.
And that’s also true of same-sex marriage. The crude, hollow stereotypes that drive the GOP’s anti-gay voters short-circuit any responsible debate over equality, so the GOP prefers to ignore the issue, and cut it off as quickly as possible when it comes up. Silence isn’t just golden, it’s an imperative.
But as with the relationship between abortion and contraception, there is a growing sense among even voters who instinctually believe that full marriage is wrong that the moral argument is nuanced. But that sentiment is shut down to cater to the least common denominator thinking of the religious extremists.
As the party censors itself, it simultaneously alienates socially and morally reasonable voices, and makes itself look ridiculous. That is what Log Cabin exploited with the party’s platform. Yes, they got rolled. The paper-thin, entirely non-specific language about how “all Americans” have the right to be treated with “dignity and respect,” is hard to square with the platform’s proposed language calling for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, unless you can respectfully and with dignity deny people equality.
But being in the room makes a difference. The anti-gay forces had to directly face the people they want to discriminate against, and Log Cabin looked back.
Moreover, the contrast with the Democrats for reasonable Americans is now that much starker. The GOP was right, strategically if not morally, to want to avoid the social issues in this campaign. They’re not a winner for the party any more. But the party fought hard for those conservative religious voters, and got what they wished for.