A spot in GOP big tent doesn't guarantee a platform plank

One man's hypocrisy is another's big tent. Take for example the goings on at Madison Square Garden here. The list of speakers this week who support abortion rights and gay rights has not escaped many reporters. It is a common source of questions posed to Republicans and Bush spokespeople alike.

What does the generous supply of moderates mean when compared with the strongly conservative GOP platform? Is it hypocrisy or even (gasp!) flip floppery? Neither, say the Republicans. It is a sign of the fact that the Republicans are the party in power and that they embrace differing points of view. Then they go one step further. Why, they ask, did the Democrats not offer prime speaking slots to, say, Democratic antiabortion activists at their convention in Boston?

That last bit is something of a stretch. It seems odd to ask why a party would necessarily want to invite speakers who don't agree with it. But the first part of the answer - that they want to be inclusive - seems reasonable. It is in fact the soul of the Republican big-tent argument. They may be a group of people of varied interests but they are united behind larger Republican goals.

There's nothing wrong with this reasoning per se. There's no reason these groups can't or shouldn't be part of the Republican Party. It is a calculation we all make in an imperfect world. It is the fine art of settling. You may not want pizza when you go to the food court, maybe you'd rather have a salad, but if pizza is the best available option, you'll take it.

But for some gays and abortion-rights advocates, those issues aren't just one in a list of things they care about. They are critical. They are defining. And this is where the Republicans run into problems, because those issues are extremely divisive.

Ann Stone, chairwoman of Republicans for Choice, says her group cannot endorse President Bush because of his stance on abortion. A recent survey of the organization found that the members' presidential preferences broke down this way: 38 percent said they are definitely voting for Mr. Bush, 39 percent are definitely voting against Bush, and the rest were undecided. And remember, those are self-proclaimed Republicans.

Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian group, says his organization is waiting until after the convention to announce if it will endorse the president for a second term. The endorsement is strongly jeopardized, he says, with emphasis on "strongly."

Which brings us back to that tent. The party suggests it's big enough to host a Kennedy wedding (not that it would, of course) and the size of the tent is simply a testament to the party's diversity.

But what is the meaning of giving voice to diversity without giving it action? Both pro-choice groups and gay-rights groups hope they can steer the party in the direction they seek, but those changes would anger large parts of this party. The point, of course, as far as politics is concerned, is to be as inclusive as possible. And you can't fault them for that. A vote is a vote. No one asks you if you agree with everything a candidate or party stands for.

The real question is for the dissident protesting Republican groups themselves. The party still supports a constitutional amendment banning abortion and this year took the step of including in the platform opposition not only to gay marriage, but to civil unions as well. And a fight developed over a so-called "unity plank" for the platform, a toothless bit of feel-good wording that simply called for encouraging "active participation" from gay and pro-choice Republicans "as we work together on those issues upon which we agree."

Even while the GOP has put forward a moderate face at this convention, it has definitely not put forward a moderate voice. The star speakers here who actually lean to the center of the party, Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, stayed away from vocalizing their more centrist opinions. Arnold's speech had one thin line devoted to differences of opinion with the party, while Rudy's glossed over it entirely. Instead, they have focused on patriotism and the war on terrorism. There's nothing wrong with those topics, but they aren't going to soothe hard feelings.

How much longer will these dissident GOPers continue to play this game?

"I've made the point with Matthew [Dowd, chief Bush campaign strategist] that you can't have it both ways," Mr. Guerriero says. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."

He says that within four years "there will be a culture war" in the Republican Party. "I guarantee that we will win this war in the long run." And if they don't? That's not up for discussion.

Ms. Stone says she'll continue to fight even though she resents being ignored and that for many it's too late - people like her have already left the party.

Which again makes you wonder, speeches aside, just how big is that big tent? It's impressive looking from the outside, but when you talk to the people who've been inside, it sounds as if it's pretty cramped.

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