When David Brock wrote Blinded by the Right in 2002, there was a lot of conversation among progressives about whether or not he could, or should, be trusted. Over the last few days I’ve found myself in similar conversations about former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman in the aftermath of his announcing that he is gay. On one hand, I personally have genuine compassion for Mehlman’s journey and the challenges he must have dealt with in his decision to be open about his sexuality.
However, in or out, gay or not, it’s just not so easy to forgive and forget the role that he’s played at senior levels of Republican politics over the years, during a time when the GOP engaged in some of the most vicious, divisive political campaign tactics. Mehlman admitted in his interview with Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic that he was fully aware and in a position to potentially prevent much of the gay baiting used over the last many years as a campaign tactic. But it’s not just the scape-goating of gay people--using homosexuality as a divisive weapon and putting anti-marriage equality referenda on the ballot (often in states where it was already illegal) for the purposes of cranking up their base and stoking fears. It’s the full embrace and implementation of a GOP strategy that goes back generations--identifying and exploiting people’s fears and anger points to win elections or galvanize conservative support, then deny, deny, deny. Such a “win at any cost” strategy creates a polarized environment in which ugly, bigoted, and sometimes violent behaviors are tacitly or directly endorsed. As we saw during last summer’s debate over healthcare reform where Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat on, Rep. Barney Frank called a “faggot,” and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis was called a “ni**er,” no Republican leaders spoke out or stood up to try and de-escalate the tension, nor did they put an end to the insinuation that Lewis was lying about the incident.
The same divisive manipulation is playing out today with the talk of "states rights,” whether or not Obama is Muslim, the rhetoric around the Islamic cultural center in New York, and scape-goating immigrants with SB 1070, not to mention changing the U.S. Constitution to repeal birthright and take away equal protections.
Ironically, it was Ken Mehlman who gave a speech to the NAACP in 2005 where as chairman of the Republican Party, he apologized for the "southern strategy" by saying: "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization, I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." Yet, even as he was delivering that speech these tactics were being implemented in Republican campaigns across the country.
For years Republicans denied that there was a “southern strategy,” just as they denied the existence of a “vast right wing conspiracy” in the ‘90s and the tactics they are engaging in today. When my former boss, then-first lady Hillary Clinton talked about the existence of a vast right-wing conspiracy, she was mocked as being overly dramatic and conspiratorial. It was not until many years later--when much of the damage had been done--that reporters actually reported the story about the “Arkansas Project” and Richard Scaife. Having worked in the Clinton administration and lived through the daily barrage of lies, it was all too familiar when John Kerry was viciously attacked during the 2004 campaign.
Obviously, Mr. Mehlman is not solely responsible for all of the hate-mongering, and it is heartening to see that he is working against Proposition 8 in California and in support of gay rights. Mr. Mehlman has another important opportunity to show leadership, not just because he is gay, and not just on gay-rights issues. As an important figure in Republican politics, his voice could have an impact--if he chooses to use it--to stand up and speak out against the time-honored, GOP strategy of using hate to motivate their base.
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Corrected 8/27/10: An earlier version of this post incorrectly characterized Ken Mehlman's position on California's Proposition 8. He is against it.