West Wing Story: A New Gop?

Karl Rove is not big on regret. When pressed to come up with something that has disappointed George W. Bush, the top White House strategist can think of only one thing: as president, he can no longer use e-mail.

Rove assessed the first year of the Bush administration on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He confessed to one surprisingly candid shortcoming of Team Bush. "We failed to marshal support among the base as well as we should have," he told the audience during the 75-minute forum. "The big discrepancy is among self-identified, white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and fundamentalists," Rove explained. Instead of the 19 million he expected to turn out for Bush, just 15 million of these voters cast their ballot for Bush. "Politically involved religious conservatives" may be returning to the sidelines," Rove mused. "I hope it's temporary."

Charles Francis, the founder of the Republican Unity Coalition and an old Bush family friend, wants to sideline the influence of religious conservatives within the GOP for good. Francis, who is gay, is trying to raise money for candidates who agree with his mission: making sexual orientation a nonissue within the Republican party. His bigger goal is to win more of the "Blue Zone" (including suburban swing voters) for his party and his president by expanding the social conservative base to include nontraditional Republicans like women, minorities and gays. "Traditional and nontraditional Republicans are not incompatible," Francis says. "More and more social conservatives are understanding that they have gay friends, colleagues and relatives. What we agree on is much bigger than what divides us--especially after 9-11. The old differences seem minute compared to liberty, personal responsibility and a strong national defense."

Inclusion seems to be in right now within he GOP. Rev. Pat Robertson, at least, is on the outs. Moderates are duking it out in the House with staunch conservative Rep. Tom Delay (a Red Zone man if there ever was one) for Dick Armey's leadership post, which he announced this week he'd be leaving. And Gov. Marc Racicot's ascension to the head of the Republican National Committee has also been hailed by moderates--including prominent voices in the gay community. As governor of Montana, Racicot stopped a bill that would have criminalized homosexuality, and he ensured gay state employees legal protection. When he emerged as Bush's first choice for attorney general, some social conservatives balked at his record. He is still quite conservative: he signed a ban on gay marriage in his state. But he also spoke out eloquently after Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming on the "moral imperative" of repudiating anti-gay violence. "He has stood up and shown leadership when it counted," says Kevin Ivers, spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay lobbying group.

Bush himself has shown some leadership on gay issues--his aides just don't advertise it for fear of provoking the conservative wing. He's appointed two openly gay men to serve in the highest positions in any Republican administration: Scott Evertz heads up the White House AIDS office and Michael Guest was recently appointed ambassador to Romania. Secretary of State Colin Powell even acknowledged Guest's partner at the swearing-in ceremony. Most of what Bush has done on gay policy has been passive, not active. He let stand a Clinton executive order protecting gay federal employees under nondiscrimination laws. This week he will likely sign the Washington, D.C., appropriations bill, which allows city employees to pay for their domestic partner's health insurance. In the past, Congress has blocked that provision with a rider. "The president took no position," says David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy group. In Washington, no position is a position, albeit a weak one. "There has been no big test for this administration, but we are optimistic," Smith says.

For Bush, a man who looks into leaders' souls and gives them nicknames, politics are personal. They are in this arena as well. Several in Bush's innermost circle have close gay relatives. Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, is gay. She and her partner attended the Inauguration together. And Cheney's top adviser, Mary Matalin, lent her celebrity for gay campaign rallies for Bush. She's been such an advocate over the years that the far-right Family Research Council singled her out in a report criticizing Bush's "Homosexual Agenda." Matalin seems determined to keep the tent open and erase the stigma from the GOP convention in 1992, when a delegate waved a sign that read NO QUEERS.

The Bush administration's ties to the gay community have opened the gates of the White House to gay advocates--if not gay policy. "We have never had this much access to a Republican White House before," says Robert Steers, chairman of the board of the Log Cabin Republicans. Soon after he was confirmed, Attorney General John Ashcroft (a Pentecostal) met with members of Log Cabin to talk about everything from compromise on hate-crimes legislation to giving gays high-level security clearance--a position Cheney has successfully championed during his career. Lynne Cheney--never one to shy away from controversy--spoke out against homophobic lyrics a few months ago. And Francis, who considers Rove a friend, stays in touch with the top strategist.

Francis knows not to harangue the president directly. An old bass-fishing buddy of Bush's from Texas, Francis came out to then Governor Bush in a letter five years ago. Bush is of the "hate the sin, love the sinner" school on homosexuality," a friend of the president says. Bush believes we're all sinners and friends say he judges people as individuals. After he read the letter, Bush called Francis right up to say, "our friendship is as strong as ever, but we won't agree on everything. And I do have a lot of questions." Francis took it upon himself to educate his friend. He sent the Texas governor a memo called "Family Values for All of Us" and during the presidential campaign organized a meeting between Bush and 12 gay Republicans in Austin.

On Francis's advice, instead of lobbying Bush on gay policy, the "Austin 12" told him personal stories. Scott Evertz was there. He talked about his partner and his faith. Former Wisconsin congressman Steve Gunderson talked about being outed on the House floor by Rep. Bob Dornan. Ironically, Dornan's former chief of staff for two decades, Brian Bennett, was also there. He spoke about how Dornan refused to talk to him after he came out--except to call him a Sodomite on the air. Bush was moved. "I'm a better man," he said. He took the Austin 12's advice and had openly gay Congressman Jim Kolbe speak at the Republican National Convention. Of course, Kolbe spoke on trade, not gay issues, and there were still nasty signs.

Where Bush's personal conviction ends and his political pragmatism begins is unclear. Bush remains opposed to civil unions for gay couples and hate-crimes legislation. Francis thinks gays will make more progress through polite persuasion--and money. "You have to have a seat at the table first," he says. His goal is to raise $1 million by fall 2002. Former congressman Michael Huffington, who came out a few years ago and is best known as the ex-husband of the thick-accented pundit, Arianna, gave the RUC $100,000 matching grant. Kmart, Microsoft and Coors have all given corporate donations. Former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, one of Cheney's closest friends, agreed to be the Republican Unity Coalition's honorary chairman.

Francis calls Simpson a "Big Sky" Republican; he subscribes to the same Western inclusiveness as the new RNC head, Racicot. Conservative firebrand Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform was also on the group's inaugural committee along with Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And Rep. Tom Davis, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, gave the keynote address at the RUC's inaugural breakfast.

Davis spoke of reaching out to gay voters and even encouraged the RUC to develop gay policies "in keeping with our agenda of limited government." Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Conservative Values Coalition upbraided him for those comments later. Already there is a Republican bill on hate-crimes legislation cosponsored by Mormon Sen. Gordon Smith. As for the gay vote, some argue it's fluid. "We could get 40 percent of the gay vote if we play it smart," Norquist says. At a luncheon in the rotunda of the Capitol after Bush was sworn in, Simpson went out of his way to introduce everyone to Mary Cheney and her partner. At one point, Sen. Ted Kennedy chided his old friend: "You SOB, you're going after the gay vote!" Simpson replied: "You're damn right I am."

When Francis ran into Rove during the inauguration, he exclaimed: "Karl, we got a million gay votes!" Bush's "compassionate conservatism" had won a quarter of the gay vote. Rove, ever the pragmatist, replied, "Yes, but we got 15 million social conservative votes." Both men know that it isn't the number of gay votes (still overwhelmingly for Democrats) but an image of inclusion that's really at stake for the Republican Party. During the 1996 campaign, Bob Dole returned a check from the Log Cabin Republicans. One former Dole aide calls it "the beginning of the end." "It made Dole look mean," the aide says. He lost the soccer moms and other moderate Republicans who were looking for signs of the party's tolerance. Karl Rove does not want to have the same regret.