JACK SPENCER: Establishment should follow its own advice

Those we might call “establishment” politicians and officials are always preaching patience and moderation to their base supporters. “All-or-nothing demands are destined to fail,” they advise. “There must be give and take; there has to be compromise. Don’t expect to get everything you want; don’t be unreasonable — and above all — political realities simply can’t be ignored.”

Yet, over the past few months, establishment-Republicans in Michigan have shown an utter contempt for patience, moderation and political realities. This course has been as ill-advised as any for which elements of their conservative base ever advocated. By needlessly borrowing trouble the Republican establishment has seriously jeopardized their party’s chances in the upcoming election. If the Democrats end up winning, these Republican insiders could justifiably be assigned an “A” for arrogance and a failing grade in “basic politics 101.”

Chief among the political misadventures has been a stubborn resolve that Michigan’s anti-discrimination Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act be expanded to include sexual orientation and that the GOP-controlled legislature must do it this year. This edict was handed down by a coalition of power-welding Lansing special interests and influential establishment Republicans.

It can be argued that adding sexual orientation to the Act would simply protect gays and lesbians from discrimination, such as might occur in the workplace or other settings. However, others — including many African Americans — argue that sexual orientation should not be categorized with descriptive terms, such as race, religion, and natural origin, which the law currently covers. More significantly, many see the effort to add sexual orientation to the Act as a precursor to legal recognition of gay marriage.

In short; this is a loaded issue, involving an array of philosophies, perceptions and deeply held religious beliefs. For Republicans it is an issue of unexplored and possibly unexpected political impact — precisely of the type that should be avoided during an election.

Gay marriage is roughly a 50-50 issue in the polls, with more Republicans opposing it than favoring it. Sure, the legislature is an appropriate venue for discussing divisive issues; but the relevant question of the moment is — what’s the big hurry? The fact that Republican leadership seems hell-bent on tackling it now — regardless of its possible effect on the election — is baffling

Had the Democrats tried their utmost, it is doubtful they could have found an issue with more potential for sabotaging the Republicans than putting sexual orientation in the Elliot-Larsen Act. The opportunities for campaign mischief involving this issue seem endless. Interestingly enough, at least one of the business groups in the coalition that initially pushed for the change has endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer.

Although there is some crossover, to be a social conservative is not synonymous with being a free market conservative. Many social conservatives couldn’t care less about issues like Medicaid expansion or Right to Work; in fact some might support Medicaid expansion and oppose Right to Work. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of libertarian-leaning free market conservatives who support gay marriage.

Yes, free market conservatives have grievances against Gov. Rick Snyder, but ultimately they tend to view politics through a wider lens than social conservatives do. In November, social conservatives could more readily decide to sit out the election than might be the case with the free marketers. That is why no other issue poses a greater threat to Snyder and the Republicans than their apparent determination to open up the Elliot-Larsen can of worms.

The irony is that, until this issue popped up, Snyder had carefully avoided getting entangled with social issues of any kind. When first asked about the issue, Snyder left himself adequate wiggle room by saying he hoped the legislature would take it up seriously as an issue after the summer.

To “take it up seriously” could have meant almost anything, including just assigning a workgroup to study the issue. Legislative leaders and Snyder’s advisors should have been politically sensitive enough to find ways to knock the issue into next year, when -— with the election behind them — all of their options could be explored. Instead, they’ve done nothing to assure social conservatives that the law won’t be changed in lame duck session.

If conservatives, of either the social or free market variety, pushed for Republicans to pursue an issue with the divisive potential of the Elliot-Larsen change in the middle of an election, they’d be given a sermon on moderation, patience and political realities and then shown the door. The same would likely happen to those on the far left, if groups from that crowd tried to push Democrats into rushing an issue that could compromise their chances in an election.

Apparently in Michigan if enough powerful entities from within the Republican establishment back a politically dangerous issue, caution is tossed to the wind. Rather than getting a sermon on moderation, patience and political realities, they are invited to sit down and start working on a plan of immediate action.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.