The LGBT community has grown accustomed to the tired tradition of anti-gay politicos scaring the bejesus out of straight America in order to turn out voters. But the conventional wisdom, before this past week anyway, was that the tactic had played itself out in presidential politics.
Now, longtime Washington pundit Fred Barnes has openly suggested that Sen. John McCain's best shot at winning the White House may be to ramp up fear of gay people to excite the Republican base. What's more is that McCain himself is said to have promised social conservative leaders that he'll ratchet up his rhetoric on issues important to them. He also recently promised his support of the California ballot initiative to roll back marriage rights for same sex couples.
So, here we go again?
McCain has enjoyed the loyalty and hard work of numerous gay people during his many years in Washington. They believed he was at least agnostic about their personal lives and that he actually meant it when he called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." They thought it brave to vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment and, although nobody considers him a champion of LGBT rights, many thought McCain found anti-gay politicking distasteful and disloyal to gay people who work for him and share his conservative views on taxes, spending, defense and other issues.
If McCain decides to take Barnes' advice, his campaign will no doubt be forceful in its effort to convince fair-minded Republicans and independents that ending marriage rights in California and barring gays from serving openly in the military are not anti-gay positions. McCain will say with a straight face that these are merely policy differences, and that he does not condone discrimination against anyone.
The targets of that twisted message, both inside and outside the campaign, will have to make a choice. Will they let themselves imagine McCain is cringing through such a speech, regretting what he knows he is doing to his friends and staff, and that later, in private, they'll get a wink and a nod and whispered assurances that he's only doing what he has to do to win?
Or will they stand up and walk out?
This is a defining moment for both the Republican Party and its many members who believe in fairness and equality for gay people. Will the GOP once again embrace the politics of division? Is it willing to sacrifice the dignity of faithful LGBT Republicans for political expediency? Most importantly, in 2008, will fair-minded Republicans, gay and straight, sign on to this strategy or will they stand up, speak out and condemn it?