McCain's campaign manager says GOP should be for gay marriage

Steve Schmidt, making his first major public appearance since last year's election, warns Republicans that they risk becoming a "religious party" if they stick to extreme social positions.

Published April 17, 2009 7:53PM (EDT)

The strategist who ran John McCain's campaign last year said Friday that if conservative Republicans keep demanding the party take extreme positions on social issues like gay marriage, the GOP could find itself becoming a religious party, not a political party.

"If you sincerely believe God's revealed truth objects to [gay marriage], then it is perfectly reasonable to oppose it," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's campaign manager, at a national convention of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay and lesbian organization. "But those are not the grounds that a political party should take. If you put public policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party."

Schmidt hasn't made any secret of the fact that he believes in gay marriage and wants the GOP to move away from its sometimes harsh rhetoric toward gays and lesbians; his sister is gay, though he joked after his speech that he tries to keep her out of the national political discussion because she's been so frequently cited in news stories that "some of her friends call her 'Steve Schmidt's gay sister.'" But the speech to the Log Cabin conference was his first major public appearance since McCain lost the election last year, and Schmidt was pushing back -- politely, but aggressively -- against a pretty firmly entrenched belief in GOP circles: that gay marriage is wrong, and somehow threatens straight people, to boot. Asked to name Republican leaders who agree with him, Schmidt could only come up with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom Schmidt used to work for.

He argued that Republicans should be for gay marriage because marriage is, inherently, a conservative institution, one that fits naturally with the party's theme of responsibility. He also linked the issue to the GOP's origins as the party of civil rights. "Our Republican Party should always be on the side of expanding equal rights; it is our heritage," Schmidt said. "I believe -- and I think most Americans believe -- you are born with your sexuality. It is not a choice... It should offend us as Republicans and Americans when gays are denigrated as un-American or undeserving of the government's protection of their rights."

The Log Cabin group seemed like a small gathering, in a basement hotel ballroom in downtown Washington. As Schmidt spoke, there was a silent auction underway out in the lobby, where you could bid on items like golf gear, signed books by Schwarzenegger, John Danforth and John Bolten, and something called an "Anderson Cooper package," which had gotten no bids on its asking price of $200.

During a question-and-answer session after the speech, one of the Log Cabin members asked Schmidt, who has worked in California politics for years, about Proposition 8, which passed narrowly last fall. He said he'd been too immersed in the presidential election to pay close attention to it, but that supporters of gay marriage shouldn't be discouraged from trying again within "one or two election cycles."

As for the presidential race, Schmidt said McCain was up against some specific problems -- the economic collapse, now-President Obama's immense popularity and organization -- and some structural ones. The structural ones, he said, should worry the GOP. "Our coalition is shrinking and losing ground among segments of the population that are growing," he said, pointing to Latino voters, college-educated voters, and, especially, younger voters. "We were crushed by the Obama campaign with voters under 30. President Obama was a uniquely attractive candidate to younger voters in matters of style as well as substance. And maybe as those voters grow older and acquire greater responsibility, they will develop greater appreciation for Republican values... But even if they do, I doubt they will abandon social attributes that distinguish them from older voters -- among them, a greater acceptance of people who find happiness in relationships with members of the same sex. Republicans should reexamine the extent to which we are being defined by positions on issues that I don't believe are among our core values."

It's worth noting that Schmidt, who works for a bipartisan consulting firm, Mercury Public Affairs, says he has no political clients these days, only corporate ones. But that's apparently because he's still recovering from campaign burnout from 2008, and he said after the speech he didn't expect his views on gay marriage to hurt his career if he wants to get back into elections.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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