Bush Miscalculates on Gay Republicans

So, George W. Bush finally held a meeting with a dozen openly gay Republicans. Afterward, he announced that while his mind had not been changed on the issues, he was a “better person” for listening.

Glad to hear it. But the more interesting question is: Did the meeting make him a better candidate? A better potential president?

Yes, a little. Meeting with gays is certainly better than not meeting with them. And it is better if the Republican Party treats homosexuals as respectable citizens instead of pariahs.

But the meeting was also part of a larger pattern that Governor Bush set early on during the primaries, a pattern that is less heartening. His every move seems based on political calculation rather than personal belief.

From the very beginning, his often maladroit maneuvering on gay issues has looked more like triangulation than principle. Before the early primaries he forswore meeting with a gay Republican group; then, just before California, he said he would reconsider.

He had first said a year ago that he would be willing to appoint openly gay officials, then seemed to backtrack in a talk with conservatives. Last week, he said that sexual orientation “is not a factor” in naming someone to a job. He opposes adoption rights, anti-discrimination protections and hate-crimes laws for homosexuals, while also trying to sound less harsh than his similarly positioned competitors to the right.

In short, he has chosen his path with a mincing delicacy that suggests fear of being wrongfooted politically. “Gotta play this right,” he seems to be saying. The carefully choreographed meeting with homosexuals seemed just another move in the game.

True, politicians are usually political; it’s their job. But not always. In 1978, Ronald Reagan, the former California governor and Republican presidential front-runner, met quietly with a gay delegation. The group wanted him to come out against the so-called Briggs Initiative, which would have barred homosexuals from teaching in public schools.

Mr. Reagan listened, and what he did after the meeting was not so quiet. He issued a robust statement. The initiative, he said, had “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights.” Mr. Reagan single-handedly turned the tide against the measure.

It was precisely Mr. Reagan’s backbone that gave him broad national appeal. He seemed capable of deciding what he thought was right and then doing it, never mind the politics or the conventional wisdom.

The Republicans need some of that spine on gay issues. The party’s right is still wedded to a hopelessly outdated strategy: marginalizing gays or dealing with them only at arm’s length and with rubber gloves.

But, in 2000, that is not a strategy at all; it is just denial. Today it seems silly to anathematize gays. Television shows are full of openly gay characters. Companies, many localities and some states grant partner benefits.

The pity is that Republicans today are in a good position to seize the new center that is emerging on homosexuality. The new gay agenda stresses commitment over frolic and responsibility over liberation. Republicans could claim this middle ground by welcoming gay people who want to live stable, responsible lives.

Yes, Mr. Bush probably couldn’t bring the Republican Party to a detente with homosexuality in 2000, but he could move the party to the center, folding homosexuals into his vision of “compassionate conservatism.”

But there, precisely, is the problem. Mr. Bush’s slogan has no real vision behind it; none, at least, that the candidate seems prepared to articulate, or to advance against his party’s entrenched interests. So, in the end, his meeting with gay Republicans was about positioning. Too bad. The meeting could have been about so much more. Perhaps the candidate still could be.