Frank Rich on the National Circus: Republicans Avoid Getting Flattened by History

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 30: Same-sex marriage proponent Kat McGuckin of Oaklyn, New Jersey, holds a gay marriage pride flag while standing in front of the Supreme Court November 30, 2012 in Washington, DC. With the Supreme Court building draped in a photo-realistic sheet during a repair and preservation project, the justices met today to consider hearing several cases dealing with the rights of gay couples who are married, want to get married or are in domestic partnerships. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Republicans’ johnny-come-lately gay-marriage support, Chris Christie’s CPAC-less future, and the Chicago Oscars.

More than 100 prominent conservatives — among them Jon Huntsman, a bevy of Bushies, and two GOP members of congress — signed an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage that will be filed to the Supreme Court this week. Former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt told the Times, “The die is cast on this issue.” Does this push indicate a real change on this issue within the GOP? Or is it merely a token gesture from marginalized moderates?
Schmidt is right: The die is cast on this issue, and the signatories are belatedly getting ahead of history before it flattens them like a tank. Generational turnover alone assumes gay marriage will be a done deal in America; public opinion on this issue has moved faster than any civil-rights battle in our history. So excuse me for being the skunk at the party, but where were these latently brave conservatives when their stand might have made a much bigger difference in bringing equality to gay Americans? Ken Mehlman, the Bush-era Republican chairman, deserves credit for his activist stance on marriage once he left politics and came out as gay (in 2010). But that doesn’t erase the ugly history that came before: He stood idly by when Bush and Rove vilified gay men and women to scare up votes during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns — a strategy that whipped up further bigotry against vulnerable gay citizens even as the country was still in the shadow of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. (And as I have written before, we should not forget the blot on Bill Clinton’s presidency, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, passed with votes from Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, among other liberals; that law continues to deny equal treatment to gays who are now legally married.)

Some of the Republicans signing the amicus brief this week do have more honorable histories on gay-rights issues, including former Northeastern governors like William Weld and Christie Todd Whitman. But in any case, let’s see Mehlman and the other tardy gay-rights supporters in the GOP make amends by showing some real political guts. They could call out and raise money to challenge the many Republican members of the House and Senate whose stand against gay rights (and not just marriage rights) recalls the rear-guard resistance of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and all the others who kept fighting full equality for African-Americans even after it was the law of the land. 

New Jersey governor Chris Christie was left off the speakers list for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), reportedly because his support for stricter gun control means he has a “limited future” in the national party and the focus of this year’s conference is “the future of conservatism.” Mitt Romney, who few think has a future in the national party, is speaking at the event. What do you make of the Christie snub and the Romney embrace?
CPAC got one thing right: Chris Christie does have a “limited future” in the national GOP, no matter how popular he is with his New Jersey constituents and conservative op-ed columnists at the Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. Though conservative by pre-tea-party standards, he is now well to the left of the radical Republican base, and not just on guns. His insistence that his state take federal money for Hurricane Sandy relief and the Obamacare Medicaid expansion are also anathema to the national GOP. Who is the future of the Republican party? The CPAC invite list has it right: Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan are all more likely to be on the next GOP presidential ticket than Christie. While CPAC certainly does not regard Romney as part of that future — far from it — he’s on the list because he still has one huge political talent the party needs: He can write big checks. 

Last month you wrote about the “Obama Oscars” and the political relevance of Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Django Unchained. What did you make of the ceremony itself?
The ceremony was a brilliant and much-anticipated tenth-anniversary tribute to the movie musical Chicago, which, as most everyone has observed, just happened to share producers with the Oscar telecast. Maybe next year’s Oscars can be mounted by any surviving producers of The Sound of Music, because we didn’t get nearly enough of Christopher Plummer or the Trapp Family Singers in Sunday’s show. It is, of course, a ritual to say each Oscars is the all-time worst, so why should I go against tradition?

The Oscars did have two very of-the-moment political surprises. First, Michelle Obama, reportedly at the invitation of Harvey Weinstein, presented the Best Picture award. Second, in a story broken by Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner, we learned that Weinstein had hired Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter to promote Silver Linings Playbook. Was the close association between the White House and Hollywood, a favorite conservative bogeyman, a bad idea? And how big a win was this for Harvey Weinstein?
The Michelle Obama appearance was a bad idea, but not because it triggered the usual knee-jerk conservative complaints about Hollywood, which always reek of cultural-status envy. The First Lady’s appearance in this context was just cheesy (and awkwardly staged with what seemed like a Gilbert & Sullivan chorus of military extras milling about to no good purpose). I also found it cheesy of Bill Clinton to salute Lincoln at the Golden Globes (a move that, I suspect, did Spielberg no favors among Academy voters). Even people in show business don’t think these award ceremonies are dignified events worthy of a presidential imprimatur. In any case, it would have been a lot more entertaining on a number of levels if the Best Picture winner announced by Michelle Obama had been Django Unchained. Or if there had been a Republican response in which Lindsey Graham demanded that PriceWaterhouse Coopers conduct a recount to see if there had been any hanging chads on ballots for Zero Dark Thirty. As for Stephanie Cutter, she was better at selling the Obama campaign than Silver Linings Playbook, an excellent movie (in my view) that didn’t have a chance of winning Best Picture. Count that as a loss for Harvey Weinstein. In general, political types don’t fare well when moonlighting in Hollywood: Nate Silver’s Oscar predictions, though accompanied by impressive stats, were no more on the money than those of your co-worker in the office pool. (He missed the tough ones, Christoph Waltz and Ang Lee.)

Bob Woodward, scourge of Nixon, has become a hero to the right over the past few days for writing a piece in the Washington Post claiming President Obama is responsible for the impending sequester. What do you make of Woodward’s piece and his place in Washington as the Most Famous Living Reporter, in general?
Our colleague Jonathan Chait has it right when he says the real underlying point of Woodward’s tendentious factual claim is to push the Beltway punditocracy’s No. 1 cliché of the Obama years: Whenever the president fails to secure some grand bipartisan bargain, it must be the fault of his leadership, not the intransigence of the radical Party of No in Congress. As for Woodward’s place in Washington, he, like so many newspaper gods of print’s heyday, is a lesser and lesser factor by every measure except Georgetown dinner parties and Sunday morning talk shows on broadcast networks. Among the many astute bloggers who dismantled his sequester piece was Ezra Klein, who wrote his dissection for Woodward’s own paper (or more pointedly, its website). The guard is changing fast, even in the Beltway.

Frank Rich: Republicans Get Ahead of History