If being a Democrat can run in families, it runs in mine.
My parents were one generation removed from Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. Tammany Hall’s ward heelers helped my grandparents become Americans by telling them how to vote. My father enlisted in the Navy at 16, got married at 20, and joined a lodge (the Knights of Pythias) and a union, both of which were virtual Republican-free zones.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only president Mom and Dad knew when they were growing up. His New Deal saved the country as far as they were concerned. Social Security provided a decent retirement for my grandparents and, later, for my parents. At their kitchen tables, Republicans were dismissed as being “for the rich.”
Not much changed when I left for college. I arrived at school the same month Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon before he could be charged or tried. Ford lost all credibility in my eyes with that pardon. My first presidential vote was for Jimmy Carter against Ford in 1976. I have never voted for a Republican presidential candidate since then, though I supported Republican-turned-independent John Anderson in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Carter.
Over time I came to agree with much of Reagan’s small-government, low-tax, individual-responsibility philosophy. But I never embraced his party because, in other areas that I deemed more important, it kept moving away from me. Nixon started it, by turning the GOP into a political refuge for Southern Democrats who had resisted integration. Reagan built on that by courting religious conservatives whose views on abortion and civil rights for women and gays I have never shared. And Reagan, the ex-Hollywood actor, allowed homophobia to flourish in his administration, which among other things led to a belated response when AIDS became a major public health threat.
So, while my parents remained tied to Democrats’ economics, I voted with the party because social issues trumped economics for me.
Not any more.
The Republican Party has not become more tolerant or inclusive. Quite the opposite, as the few remaining moderates retire, are beaten in primaries by more fundamentalist candidates, or switch to the Democratic column as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania did this year.
Nor have my views on social issues changed. I still favor abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and a realistic immigration policy that welcomes, rather than criminalizes, honest people who want to work in the United States. With these positions, I couldn’t win a Republican primary for kindergarten class president.
This is what Democratic politicians count on. Bill Clinton courted the homosexual community in the 1992 campaign, only to entrench discrimination against gays in the military with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy once he was commander-in-chief. (As an aside, let’s take note of two things. First, telling your commanding officer in Iraq or Afghanistan that you’re gay isn’t necessarily going to get you kicked out of the service; the military has learned to be selective in applying its discredited attitudes. Second, that may be because it is slowly dawning on the brass that nobody gets pregnant from same-sex intimacy, and pregnancy on the battlefield is becoming something of a nuisance.)
Clinton sold out gays once again when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, not coincidentally another campaign year. His message to the people whose dreams he betrayed was: “Who you gonna call — Bob Dole?”
Republicans controlled Congress from 1995 to 2007, during which time same-sex marriage arrived in America. The GOP did not like it but could not do much about it other than back rejectionist legislation in dozens of states. Abortion rights did not change much, either. But people like me wanted more. The 2006 elections brought a Democratic Congress, and the 2008 elections ushered another Democrat into the White House and empowered him with overwhelming majorities on Capitol Hill. The stage was set for real civil rights progress.
And what happened? The new commander-in-chief, characteristically, punted “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act back to Congress. And, in Congress, Democratic leaders inserted anti-abortion provisions into their health care reform legislation when they needed a blessing from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to get their bills passed.
While Republicans were exorcising people who think like I do, Democrats were welcoming people who think like Republicans. It was the smart way to get the majority they needed to implement those economic policies I dislike. For example, the Senate health care debate might well have ended differently if Arlen Specter had stayed in the GOP.
My loyalty to Democrats made me politically irrelevant. Republicans had no reason to take me into account; I seldom supported them anyway. Democrats assumed I would vote for them regardless of their unreliability on the social issues so important to me.
So, last weekend, I joined the Log Cabin Republicans, whose mission is to “support fairness, freedom and equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” I’m not actually gay (in fact, I joined the group’s “straight and supportive” caucus), and my voting record does not make me much of a Republican, but there is nothing in Log Cabin’s mission statement that I would not proudly be associated with.
The group sidesteps the abortion controversy. For me, that is no worse than supporting the current crop of “pro-choice” Democrats who rely for their power on their party’s anti-choice wing.
Log Cabin’s goal of making the Republican Party more inclusive is a long-term project, if not downright Quixotic. That’s okay by me. I believe wholeheartedly in a two-party system. For that to work, we need two parties that are open to everyone.
It should be easy to get used to life on the political fringes. After three decades of supporting Democrats, I found I’m already there.