At a glance, the first challenger for the Republican 2012 presidential ticket fits the party mold to a T: an old white man in his 60s advocating a world policing foreign policy, small government, and steadfast economic optimism. However, for all his similarities with the rest of the field, Fred Karger will garner attention for his one main difference: he is one of the most famous gay-rights activists in the country, and an openly gay man himself.
Karger’s entry makes him the first-ever openly gay Republican presidential candidate, as Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer points out. If party leadership had any sense, it would use Karger’s presence to massage its public image. It’s often perceived as homophobic, mainly thanks to efforts by party members to suppress equal access to civil rights. But Karger represents a significant portion of Republicans who recognize the importance of equality while adhering to other, more central aspects of the party’s ideology. He can help put a better, more tolerant face on the party, especially as support for the gay rights movement continues to grow.
However, assuming common sense in American politics is risky and assuming tolerance among mainstream Republican leadership can be even riskier, which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Karger faces “an uphill battle” to gain entry into the party-sponsored debates, according to Mencimer.
The RNC has appointed Indiana campaign finance lawyer and right-wing stalwart James Bopp to oversee the 18 debates expected to take place during the campaign. Bopp represents many anti-gay marriage organizations that have been battling in court to protect their donors and supporters from state disclosure laws. Many of those lawsuits have been inspired by Karger himself, who was instrumental in organizing boycotts of the major donors to California’s Prop. 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. Bopp has argued in court that the Prop. 8 donors were harassed and subjected to potential violence because of their outing and is fighting to eliminate many of the laws that made Karger’s boycott possible. Bopp has actually subpoenaed Karger in one of those cases in California, and has been defending the group Protect Marriage from a state ethics complaint Karger filed against the group in Maine.
Karger has reportedly asked for the RNC to remove Bopp, citing the obvious conflict of interest. But, as Mencimer points out, it’s appears unlikely that the party would bend over backward—and remove one of its own—in order to appease a candidate whose “conflict of interest” places him firmly against mainstream party ideology.
But putting Karger’s sexuality aside, it’s obvious his political experience merits at least serious consideration for the party ticket. He’s spent most of his political career as one of the party’s top strategists—he orchestrated the takedown of Michael Dukakis in 1988 through the controversial “Willie Horton” ad campaign—and Paul Harris of The Guardian compares his pedigree to that of Karl Rove.
So if he’s qualified and sides with the party line on most important issues, then silencing his voice in RNC-sponsored debates highlights the party’s intolerance. Essentially they’d be saying that an otherwise acceptable candidate’s sexuality alone completely undermines his legitimacy. This seems particularly ridiculous when you consider that openly gay politicians are gaining huge support in other western democracies. Early polling in Ireland’s presidential elections put Senator David Norris in the lead—Norris told the Irish Times that he sees himself not as a gay president, but “as a president who happens to be gay.” Meanwhile, Nichi Vendola, an openly gay ex-communist, is poised to make a serious run to replace the disgustingly sexist and homophobic Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Karger may not be likely to win the nomination, much less the election, but the Republican Party can at least make a sign of good faith and allow its only openly gay presidential candidate a voice at its official table. Failure to at least acknowledge his existence will be simply be the latest, most public example of its intolerance to date.