Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been quite candid on most of the hot-button social issues of the day, and despite national ambitions, the Florida Republican has positioned himself well to the right of the American mainstream on issues like contraception, reproductive rights, and marriage equality.
But the senator nevertheless believes he has a strong case to make when it comes to the culture war, and yesterday he delivered a big speech his staff billed as an address on “the breakdown of the American family and the erosion of fundamental values that has followed.” The remarks, which can be read in their entirety here or watched online here, covered a fair amount of ground, though as Benjy Sarlin explained, there was a special emphasis on gay rights.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged Wednesday that American history was “marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians.” But in a speech at Catholic University in Washington, Rubio drew the line sharply at marriage equality and accused supporters of same sex unions of “intolerance.”“I promise you even before this speech is over I’ll be attacked as a hater or a bigot or someone who is anti-gay,” Rubio said. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy. Support for the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is not anti-gay, it is pro-traditional marriage.”
Rhetoric like this is familiar – the right has long believed it’s unfair for the left to be intolerant of intolerance. Despite its repetition, though, the argument always seems to come up short.
Consider the underlying point Rubio is trying to make. On the one hand, he and his allies intend to keep fighting, hoping to use the power of the state to deny equal rights and basic human dignity to Americans based on sexual orientation. On the other hand, Rubio and his allies would appreciate it if no one said mean things about them while they push these policies.
I’m afraid the public discourse doesn’t quite work this way. No one is suggesting Rubio must abandon his opposition to civil rights for LGBT Americans, but if he wants to avoid criticism while pushing public policies that create second-class citizens, he appears to have chosen the wrong line of work.
That said, let’s not overlook the part of the speech in which Rubio also tried to position himself as a critic of anti-gay discrimination.
“We should acknowledge that our history is marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians. There was once a time when the federal government not only banned the hiring of gay employees, it required private contractors to identify and fire them. Some laws prohibited gays from being served in bars and restaurants. And many cities carried out law enforcement efforts targeting gay Americans.“Fortunately, we have come a long way since then.”
Yes, that is fortunate. But under existing federal law, American employers, right now, can legally fire gay employees – or even employees they think might be gay – regardless of their on-the-job performance.
Our history is, in fact, “marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians,” but that discrimination can still happen under existing law – and though he didn’t mention it yesterday, as far as Marco Rubio is concerned, federal anti-discrimination laws should not be changed. Indeed, when the Senate rather easily passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last fall, only 30 senators voted against it, and Rubio was one of them.
The far-right senator, in other words, is trying but failing to thread a culture-war needle. Rubio wants to block consenting adults who fall in love from getting married, but he doesn’t want to be accused of intolerance. The Republican senator wants to decry employment discrimination against LGBT Americans, but he doesn’t want to take action to prevent the discrimination he claims not to like.
As culture-war visions go, this one needs some work.