In the last Republican debate on Thursday night Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked Mitt Romney about his alleged flip-flop from gay rights advocate when he ran for Senate in 1994 to gay rights opponent when he began running for president in 2007. Romney replied that he has consistently taken the same position. “I do not believe in discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation…. There was a member of my administration, my cabinet, who was gay. I didn’t ask justices that I was looking to appoint, rather, applicants for jobs, what their sexual orientation was…. At the same time, Chris, in 1994, and throughout my career, I’ve said I oppose same-sex marriage.”
Some would argue that opposing marriage rights for same-sex couples is endorsing anti-gay discrimination. You could also say that the world has changed a lot since 1994, so supporting equality for gays in the workplace but not at the marriage altar for the last eighteen years means you’ve moved from being relatively supportive of gay rights to relatively opposed. This, of course, is perfect for Romney: he appealed to the liberal Massachusetts electorate as a relative liberal and appeals now to the conservative Republican national electorate as a relative conservative while nominally staying true to the same principles.
But Romney’s answer contained a misleading sleight of hand. He gives examples of his not discriminating personally against his employees for being gay, but that is not the same thing as opposing workplace discrimination as a political matter. Romney is saying, to his credit, that he doesn’t practice workplace discrimination. One would hope that would go without saying in this day and age, but since Romney’s former opponent Herman Cain pledged not to appoint Muslims, it’s probably worth stating outright. However, a politician could choose not to discriminate in his own hiring practices while refusing to extend that protection to gays throughout the government, much less to the private sector. Libertarian conservatives such as Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, argued exactly that: discrimination is morally wrong, but it isn’t the government’s role to impose its morality on private businesses. On a less intellectually abstract level, your average Republican simply conflates personal and political discrimination, as Romney does. Many Republicans and conservatives bristle at the suggestion that they are racists, pointing out that they aren’t personally prejudiced and demanding to know how dare a stranger such as a liberal journalist or political scientist claim to know what’s in their heart. What they fail to recognize is that it is far more important that a politician support legal efforts to combat discrimination than whether they personally appoint minorities or gays to their cabinet. The terms of George W. Bush, when he eviscerated the ability of the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to combat racial discrimination and appointed anti–civil rights judges, were bad years for racial progress, his appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state notwithstanding.