Reihan Salam, having a conversation with Sam Tanenhaus in Slate, writes this:
And in a similar vein, Karl Rove never imagined that opposition to same-sex marriage would cement a permanent Republican majority. It was a distraction that I’m sure he found distasteful. President Bush himself could barely stomach talking about the issue. Yet talk about it he did, in deference to the need to press every advantage.
Sam Tanenhaus responds:
The same antagonisms continued through the Bush years. Your reading of that dismal period seems rather wishful to me. Bush and Rove built their presidency on revanchism. This isn’t surprising since Rove’s number-crunching following the 2000 election—when Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000 or more—suggested that the GOP ticket had failed to exploit the evangelical base that might have yielded a majority. No wonder Bush devoted so much of his presidency to courting social conservatives—remember stem cells, intelligent design, the faith-based initiative? Nor was Rove taken aback by opposition to same-sex marriage. On the contrary, he made it a centerpiece in the 2004 election. It is the politics of the excluded middle, or center, and it defines the right today on every stratum.
Rove thought this was a distraction? From his realignment? Does Reihan recall the kind of politics Rove cut his teeth on in the South? Gay-baiting was one critical part of his strategy for realignment. It was designed not just to rally evangelicals but to win over a segment of African-Americans and Hispanics. And distasteful?
Has Rove ever said anything that could conceivably reflect that fact? Has he ever uttered a single word in public that even suggested empathy with and support for gay citizens of any kind – or has he always implied that they are a threat to “real Americans” and to the family itself? Has he ever said a word in public that suggested he knew or cared about gay people or even acknowledged that we exist?
At the very beginning of Bush’s term, Rove told those gay Republicans who had helped Bush win that the only thing that mattered to him was there were more votes in gay-bashing than in standing up to the bigots in his base. It was all about running the numbers. To his credit, he said that to their face, just as he told me to my face that he had no concern whatever about debt or spending, because he didn’t think people voted on those issues. And once he thought he could polarize the country even further around an issue like this, he went for it. Reihan thinks this was all done terribly reluctantly because Rove had no choice but to follow the masses. To which I can only respond Judge Judy-style: don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.
And, yes, Bush, despite being personally compassionate and understanding of gay men and women and hiring them from the very bottom to the very top of his administration (on the condition that they remain closeted at all times), went along. He endorsed marginalizing gays as second class citizens in the very federal constitution “in deference to the need to press every advantage.” And in so doing, he never even acknowledged in any way our existence or dignity or humanity. He never met with a single one of us or our representatives in eight years in office. He never used the word itself in a formal speech. He never even referred in public to the pain and suffering that his policy would entail, to the immense hurt a tiny minority would feel if they were singled out in their own constitution as sub-human. This “uniter-not-a-divider” was indifferent to a policy that would have written a beleaguered and tiny minority out of their own country. But he had to do this “in deference to the need to press every advantage.” To my mind, this makes him worse than Rove: at least Rove was a proud cynic; Bush couldn’t take even that responsibility. I know all this pains Reihan and I know his heart and brilliant mind are in the right place. But he’s being far too generous to the GOP elites.
Christopher Orr at TNR:
Andrew doesn’t cite it, but the best piece on the subject (at least of which I’m aware) was written by Josh Green in November 2004, at Andrew’s current (and Reihan’s former) home The Atlantic. Indeed, reading it anew, I’m still shocked by some of the details. In the 2004 context that Reihan was specifically referencing, Green singles out gay marriage as an issue that others in the GOP feared Rove was overplaying, thanks to his long experience in Texas: “Several consultants pointed to the issue of gay marriage, which one described as a perfect Texas wedge issue…. But he doubted that the issue would have the same effect in the less conservative battleground states that are expected to decide this election.”
Some of Rove’s darker tactics cut even closer to the bone. One constant throughout his career is the prevalence of whisper campaigns against opponents. The 2000 primary campaign, for example, featured a widely disseminated rumor that John McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had betrayed his country under interrogation and been rendered mentally unfit for office. More often a Rove campaign questions an opponent’s sexual orientation. Bush’s 1994 race against Ann Richards featured a rumor that she was a lesbian, along with a rare instance of such a tactic’s making it into the public record—when a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for “appointing avowed homosexual activists” to state jobs.
Another example of Rove’s methods involves a former ally of Rove’s from Texas, John Weaver, who, coincidentally, managed McCain’s bid in 2000. Many Republican operatives in Texas tell the story of another close race of sorts: a competition in the 1980s to become the dominant Republican consultant in Texas. In 1986 Weaver and Rove both worked on Bill Clements’s successful campaign for governor, after which Weaver was named executive director of the state Republican Party. Both were emerging as leading consultants, but Weaver’s star seemed to be rising faster. The details vary slightly according to which insider tells the story, but the main point is always the same: after Weaver went into business for himself and lured away one of Rove’s top employees, Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function. Weaver won’t reply to the smear, but those close to him told me of their outrage at the nearly two-decades-old lie. Weaver was first made unwelcome in some Texas Republican circles, and eventually, following McCain’s 2000 campaign, he left the Republican Party altogether. He has continued an active and successful career as a political consultant—in Texas and Alabama, among other states—and is currently working for McCain as a Democrat.
If you can read that and conclude that Rove finds gay-baiting distasteful, then I give up.
UPDATE: In an interview with Hima at Gordon Gartrelle, Salam responds to a question concerning his original piece:
You recently caught some street heat for saying “Karl Rove never imagined that opposition to same-sex marriage would cement a permanent Republican majority. It was a distraction that I’m sure he found distasteful.” while chatting with Sam Tanenhaus. For real man? You serious?
I think I was seriously, seriously misunderstood here. If I could write it again, I would definitely write it differently. Note that this isn’t a position that’s very flattering to Rove — it suggests that he was a hypocrite who was using this position to political advantage. And I certainly shouldn’t have said, “I’m sure,” as I don’t live inside Rove’s brain and I’ve never met the man. I was basing this, rather carelessly, on news reports concerning his warm relationship with a gay father-figure, and I thought, “Surely he can’t be a hateful goon in his personal relationships.”
More to the point, I think it really is true that Bush and Rove were, when they were setting out to win the presidency and remake the country, had in mind a domestic policy agenda focused on spreading asset ownership — Social Security reform, encouraging low-income families to buy homes, etc. It turns out that almost all of these ideas were actually pretty bad ideas, at least in the form that Bush and Rove had in mind. But that doesn’t change the fact that they cared about those issues far more than “social issues.” (The scare quotes are there because I think a lot of “economic issues” are in fact “social issues.”)
The main thing is this: people who seek elected office convince themselves that they must win. So Republicans in 2004 convinced themselves that if they didn’t win, civilization was doomed! And of course that’s probably not true, as civilization is pretty resilient. This apocalyptic perspective is pervasive among liberals and conservatives and all people with the leisure time to think about this stuff rather than eke out a meager living as indentured brick-layers.
UPDATE #2: Andrew Sullivan responds:
I cannot know Karl Rove’s conscience. Yes, he has no record of personal hostility toward or contempt for gay people, including openly gay people. But that makes his cynical use of homophobia all the more wretched. I’m sure he saw himself as a reformist visionary who had to stoop to fear-mongering to win power. But that’s how most people do evil; they think it’s a means of doing good.