WASHINGTON -- Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who managed John McCain's presidential campaign, called upon his party today to move to Barack Obama's left by fully supporting gay marriage.
Such a position would not only fit conservative principles, he argued, but could help Republicans navigate a political situation he said "could get worse before it gets better." Most prominent Democrats, including Obama, support civil unions for gay couples but not marriage, while most elected Republicans, including McCain, are opposed to both.
"I'm confident American public opinion will continue to move on the question toward majority support, and sooner or later the Republican Party will catch up to it," Schmidt told a Washington gathering of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group fighting for influence within the party.
Schmidt mounted a tightly argued conservative defense of gay unions, celebrating marriage as a traditional institution forces responsibility on to individuals and stability on society. But he also defied a conservative assumption that social norms should be cherished as permanent. "We should understand that traditions do change over time in society," he said.
Schmidt said he respected religious disagreement with a redefinition of marriage and was open to the prospect of some sort of compromise that would allow religious organizations to be exempt from recognizing same-sex unions. But, he said, church doctrine should not be cited as grounds to maintain the position as a platform plank. "If you put public-policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party," he said.
It was among the first public appearances that Schmidt, a California consultant who has advised George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger but no longer works in partisan politics, has made since the election. He said that McCain's candidacy faced large structural challenges from its outset due to in national demographic shifts, but that the campaign's mission became "insurmountable" after September's financial collapse.
"Movement towards a center-left political realignment" is afoot, according to Schmidt. "Our coalition is shrinking, and losing ground with the segments of the population that are growing," he said, pointing towards the growing support Democrats have found among Hispanics, the young, and voters in most parts of the country outside the Deep South.
Schmidt, who continues to speak to McCain daily, said that Republicans -- who have long had a natural hierarchy and instinct towards primogeniture -- would be well-served by their current lack of direction.
"I think Republicans ought to embrace this 'Lord of the Flies' period, where there's no leader," Schmidt told reporters after his speech. "There needs to be an opportunity for new leaders to emerge."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.