In 2004, the Bush/Cheney campaign, following the advice of Karl Rove, exploited anti-gay animus to help win a second term. Ken Mehlman, who managed Bush’s 2004 campaign, told my friend Tom Schaller he regrets the strategy.
“At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort,” he says. “As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry.”
It’s a welcome sentiment from Mehlman, a partner at a New York private equity firm, who announced in 2010 that he’s gay. And if this sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because this isn’t the only notable candid regret we’ve heard from the guy – in 2005, Mehlman, in his capacity as chairman of the Republican National Committee, apologized to the NAACP for his party’s reliance on racial division to win elections.
“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” Mehlman said at the time. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
When it comes to LGBT rights, meanwhile, Mehlman’s larger point isn’t just his compunction about 2004, but also his optimism about the near future:
…Mehlman is encouraged by changes within his party, especially the support among younger Republicans for marital equality and related positions. In 2011, Mehlman personally lobbied 13 New York state Republican legislators to help pass the state’s same-sex marriage law, and did the same with 10 Republican U.S. senators during the congressional battle to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Although he is still a loyal Republican – he recently contributed to a fundraiser for House Speaker John Boehner, a gay marriage opponent – a month ago Mehlman published an Op-Ed in the conservative Manchester Union-Leader in which he explained to conservatives and Republicans why supporting same-sex marriage venerates their beliefs not only in individual and economic freedoms, but personal responsibility and family values.
Will Mehlman’s efforts within his party pay off? Paul Waldman is optimistic, writing today, “I’ll bet that within a decade or two, as support for same-sex marriage spreads, it will become the majority opinion even within the GOP. At that point – just as they do with race today – they’ll do what they can to whitewash their history and pretend that they were the real advocates of equality all along.”