Staying Home in ‘04
Counting on social conservatives.


Ramesh Ponnuru’s NRO piece Wednesday on gays and social conservatives was off the mark in several respects. While I do not presume to speak for all social conservatives, I can speak for Family Research Council, which was one of the first organizations to object to Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot’s meeting with the Human Rights Campaign.

First, FRC did not suggest that “such meetings never take place.” While we might question Racicot’s judgment and the prudence of such a meeting, the RNC chairman is free to meet with whomever he wishes, just as FRC is free to criticize such meetings. FRC did question, however, the clandestine nature of the meeting. Even senior officials at the RNC, who had been kept in the dark, privately expressed shock that Racicot had met with the HRC leadership. If this was, as Racicot suggests, merely a routine meeting of the sort the RNC chairman regularly attends as part of his official duties, then why the secrecy? No press was allowed to attend the meeting, and no record of his comments to the group was made so far as is known. Only the gay press and HRC itself have publicly characterized the substance of the meeting. So far, Racicot has not disavowed those characterizations or the statements attributed to him.

Moreover, the comments attributed to Racicot at the meeting are most disturbing, especially those which implied that religious conservatives who oppose the gay political agenda are motivated by fear and ignorance. Again, if these statements are accurate, then Racicot appears to be utterly tone deaf — or openly hostile — to traditional values voters who comprise the vast bulk of the Republican (and President Bush’s) political base. The comments attributed to Racicot, if accurate, are rooted in religious bigotry. Or was he merely pandering to the prejudices of the HRC activists?

Again, social conservatives found the Racicot-HRC meeting troubling because of the secrecy surrounding it. Only the gay activists who attended the meeting know whether the RNC chairman offered a vigorous defense of marriage and family. Did he disavow the relevant planks in the GOP platform? Did he promise HRC anything? We simply don’t know.

Unfortunately, Racicot has a history of conducting business with the gay lobby under conditions of secrecy. As governor of Montana in November 2000, he signed an executive order establishing “sexual orientation” as a protected civil right without the benefit of public hearings or public notice (possibly violating the state’s open meetings law). Only gay activists were invited to the hearing that preceded Gov. Racicot’s action and opponents were kept entirely in the dark. The governor’s action preempted the Montana legislature, which had refused to pass an expansion of civil rights to encompass sexual conduct. Gov. Racicot simply added this provision to existing state law by executive fiat.

Finally, Ponnuru sniffs at the idea that social conservatives might stay home in the 2004 election if the GOP and President Bush are perceived as going wobbly on the defense of marriage and other pro-family issues. Ponnuru charges social-conservative leaders with “threatening more than they can deliver.” Let me be clear: FRC never threatened anybody. We did, however, warn the White House that the GOP drift on marriage and such aspects of the gay agenda such as domestic partner benefits, hate crimes, and such, could cause some social-conservative voters to stay home.

While Ponnuru might find this idea fantastic, Karl Rove still laments that four million evangelicals failed to vote in 2000. Since church attendance was the single best indicator of voting behavior, the stay-at-home evangelicals cost Mr. Bush the popular vote and very nearly the election. If these evangelical voters were not highly motivated by eight years of the smarmy Clinton presidency, and were not eager to “run to the polls” and put the whole sorry Clinton era behind them, then it is dangerous to dismiss the possibility they might stay home again on Election Day 2004 if their core issue is treated in a cavalier fashion.

Ponnuru is doubtless right that on a whole array of issues social conservatives love and support President Bush. But they are no less committed to the sanctity of marriage and family. For millions of voters, the sanctity of marriage and family are issues that transcend politics. The GOP goes wobbly on these issues at its considerable peril.

Ken Connor is president of Family Research Council.