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Romney Flails on Gay Rights | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Romney Flails on Gay Rights

This has been a confusing week for voters trying to keep track of Mitt Romney’s constantly changing stances on gay rights. As I reported Tuesday, the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Romney, claiming that Romney opposes workplace discrimination and expressing confidence that he would work with them to pass legislation banning it. From my interview with R. Clarke Cooper, LCR’s executive director, it was clear that Romney had told them as much in private. This is strange, because Romney has not made such a pledge publicly since 1994. More recently, in 2007, he said he would oppose such legislation as burdensome on business.

Some bloggers interpreted my report to mean that Romney had explicitly struck a deal with LCR for their endorsement. That is not necessarily the case. He clearly pandered to them in private prior to winning their endorsement, but that does not mean any deal was made.

BuzzFeed asked Cooper if Romney pledged to sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA], and Cooper said, “I did not say Romney would sign the current form of ENDA.” But he admitted that he, “discussed legislative vehicles and executive actions with Romney regarding workplace non-discrimination, including ENDA.” The emphasis on the current form of ENDA is crucial: the bill currently in Congress, unlike some prior versions, includes protection for “gender identity” as well as sexual orientation. That means it would protect transgender people as well as gays and lesbians. That may be a bridge too far for Romney.

Cooper reiterated his certainty that Romney would support anti-discrimination policies in an interview with the Washington Blade, saying it was the subject of a meeting between LCR and Romney on October 17. “I can say with confidence that the Romney administration would work on desirable outcomes for workplace non-discrimination,” Cooper said. “I’m going to leave it broad like that because I think there’s room for administrative action as well as legislative. I also think it’s probably fair to say that legislation in a form of an ENDA or an ENDA-like legislation is certainly realistic.”

Given how Romney is trying to carefully balance appeals to social moderates by presenting himself as opposed to discrimination without taking a stand on any actual legislation, figuring out his position on ENDA is turning into Kremlinology. As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner notes, “Cooper’s careful language would allow a lesser, but similar, understanding about Romney’s general support for workplace protections to have been reached before the endorsement.” What would such an understanding consist of? Possibly that Romney would support a bill that is weaker than the current form of ENDA in Congress. One obvious way the law could be weakened is removing protections for transgender individuals. As Zack Ford of ThinkProgress notes, “LCR only claims to support equality for ‘gay and lesbian Americans,’ so perhaps they are prepared to abandon the transgender community to achieve ‘tangible outcomes’ that include only protections based on sexual orientation.”

This is not the only issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians that Romney has confused the public about his stance on. Cooper gave me three examples of gay rights issues Romney supports, besides workplace discrimination: adoption for gay couples, serving in the military, and hospital visitation rights for partners. The Romney campaign has undermined Cooper’s claims on two of those.

Back in May, Romney told Fox News that “[gay couples] have a right,” to adopt children. But the very next day he told CBS affiliate WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, that he was observing a national consensus, not asserting a belief of his own. “That’s a position which has been decided by most of the state legislatures,” said Romney. “So I simply acknowledge the fact that gay adoption is legal in all states but one.”

Regarding hospital visitation rights, Romney surrogate Bay Buchanan said after Monday’s presidential debate that Romney believes decisions on gay marriage and related issues such as hospital visitation and adoption should be left up to the states. This was off-message to both the right and the left. It blatantly contradicts Romney’s pledge to support a federal ban on gay marriage. But it also implies that Romney would reverse the Obama administration’s 2010 executive order requiring hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid to recognize the visitation rights of gay couples. Buchanan later sent BuzzFeed a clarification of Romney’s convoluted position:

Governor Romney supports a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Governor Romney also believes, consistent with the 10th Amendment, that it should be left to states to decide whether to grant same-sex couples certain benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and the ability to adopt children. I referred to the Tenth Amendment only when speaking about these kinds of benefits – not marriage.

In other words, Romney maintains his support for making a federal issue of gay marriage, in order to ban it. But he thinks visitation rights are a state issue and would therefore presumably reverse Obama’s action.

This contradicts what the Romney campaign has told LCR. In our interview Cooper told me, “We’ve been assured there’s no retreat or interest in walking back repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ nor hospital visitation.”

The politics of gay rights are forcing Romney to perform these feats of contortion. Put broadly, his religious right base opposes civil rights for gays across the board, while a majority of the public supports them, except for marriage, on which the public is roughly evenly divided. As a general election candidate that makes Romney’s optimal position supportive of all gay rights except marriage. But that would alienate his base. (Since Romney has virtually no known actual principles on anything, the only relevant factors here are his political incentives.)

After I posted my item on Tuesday, I called Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for government and public policy at the American Family Association, and host of a popular right-wing talk radio program. Fischer has previously told me that Romney should unequivocally state his opposition to ENDA in order to shore up his support among social conservatives. I asked if he had seen LCR’s endorsement of Romney. “The main question I had [upon reading it] was if they got any concessions from Romney on ENDA,” said Fischer. I said Cooper had told me Romney had assured LCR that he would support ENDA-like legislation.

Fischer warned that any move to support ENDA by Romney would dramatically upset social conservatives. He said:

If Governor Romney gives up any ground on ENDA that is a huge problem for social conservatives. ENDA will do to every Christian businessman in America what Obama’s abortion mandate does to hospitals, which is robs them of religious freedom and freedom of conscience and their constitutional right to freedom of association. I think if a President Romney were to give an impetus to an ENDA-like bill that would create a firestorm in his conservative base. It would not be smart politics for him to do that, as well as being wrong.

Fischer then took to Twitter to make the same argument and request a “flat emphatic, unambiguous denial from Romney himself.” The Romney campaign has not responded to my request for comment. It has previously shown a willingness to contradict Fischer on tone, rather than policy. It seems that this close to Election Day it is desperately trying to avoid offending anyone. That leaves us not knowing much about Romney’s actual positions. But we do know this: if both LCR and the religious right think Romney is on their side, at least one of them is wrong.

Don’t miss Ben Adler’s report on “Romney’s Private Promises to the Log Cabin Republicans.”

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