Christian Fong is in “reassure the base” mode as he introduces himself to Iowa Republicans. He chose not to confront Steve Deace during his first appearance on the right-winger’s WHO radio show. Then he hired Marlys Popma to run his gubernatorial campaign. A former head of Iowa Right to Life, Popma is well-known to social conservatives.
I’ve seen some bloggers describe Fong as the “moderate” among Republicans running for governor, but it would be more accurate to say he is campaigning as a non-threatening conservative. He promises to expand the Republican Party’s appeal without changing what the party stands for. He’ll do it by talking about the issues in a way that won’t alienate voters outside the GOP base. So, he embraces diversity and a “welcoming environment.” He uses inclusive, empowering language with echoes of Barack Obama. He wants a “pro-family agenda” to go beyond social issues.
We saw this strategy in action during Fong’s first major televised interview, especially in the way he handled the question about same-sex marriage rights.
Beth Malicki of KCRG in Cedar Rapids interviewed Fong for nearly half an hour on July 11. David Chung, who resigned from the GOP State Central Committee in order to back Fong in the Republican primary, helpfully posted the video and partial transcript at Hawkeye GOP:
Malicki: “If you’re for the next generation, how can you speak out on things and speak out against things like gay marriage when many young people in Iowa embrace the idea of one man and another man loving each other or one woman and another woman loving each other and you have been vocal about being against that.”
Fong: “It certainly is the topic of the day. A lot of Iowans care about this. So, let me be clear where I stand.
“I believe that Iowans deserve the right to vote on a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as one man and one woman it is a constitutional amendment that I would personally support.”
“At the same time, we can’t ever label people as an issue. We can’t label them as a problem. I am not embarrassed about where I stand on that issue. But at the same time, I don’t look across at anybody that has a different view. I don’t condemn them for what they hold so deeply, and I invite everyone to the table. Let’s keep talking about this is Iowa. In Iowa, we are big enough to deal with tough problems, with tough topics and do it in a respectful and honoring way. That encourages dialog rather than perpetuating an I’m right you’re wrong style of politics, I’m not about that.”
Fong’s position on gay marriage makes no sense on a substantive level. He says he does not “label” or “condemn” people, yet he wants to deprive gays and lesbians of the rights he and millions of other Iowans enjoy. Next time Fong attends a young professionals event, I hope members of the LGBT community let him know they don’t find it “respectful” and “honoring” when politicians advocate taking their rights away.
Fong sticks to the politically-correct Republican message on same-sex marriage. Instead of acknowledging that he wants to write discrimination into the Iowa Constitution, he says, “Iowans deserve the right to vote” on a marriage amendment, as if we were in the habit of subjecting minority rights to a majority vote in this country.
The Varnum v Brien decision (available here) mentions that more than 200 Iowa laws are “affected by civil-marriage status,” and “more than 1,000 federal legal rights and responsibilities [are] derived from marriage” (footnote 28). I would like to hear Fong explain the compelling state interest in denying these rights to gay and lesbian Iowans. As Bleeding Heartland user sgarystewart wrote in this open letter to his state senator,
Now disabled, I am low income, and cannot afford a lawyer to draft and file the hundreds of different contracts with my partner that would provide us with a near approximation of the marriage you enjoy and the rights it confers on you and your spouse.
Even if I could afford those contracts, they would not bring me and mine to parity with you and yours.
Fong wants to “invite everyone to the table” for dialog, as opposed to pushing an “I’m right you’re wrong style of politics.” Bringing stakeholders to the table is great when you’re negotiating a compromise over some public policies, but the marriage question is binary. There is no compromise position between marriage equality and letting a majority vote to deny a minority group the benefits of civil marriage. If Fong believes Iowans should restrict marriage rights to heterosexuals, he is in effect saying that same-sex couples are wrong, and he should tell us why.
I don’t want to hear about his religious beliefs. My moral values tell me teachers shouldn’t marry former students, and married people shouldn’t dump a spouse for a younger model, but you don’t see me trying to deny Newt Gingrich legal recognition for any of his marriages.
More important, the Iowa Supreme Court stated on pages 66 and 67 of the Varnum v Brien decision,
Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle and law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious domination can can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.
Now that is respectful and honoring.
Of course I understand that no Republican trying to win a competitive primary can embrace same-sex marriage rights. If Fong were really a moderate, he’d have no hope.
In contrast, what I’ll call the non-threatening conservative message on gay marriage could appeal to a large segment of Iowa voters. No one ever said effective political rhetoric had to be logical.
Look at the latest Hawkeye Poll on gay marriage. This poll of 978 Iowa adults was in the field in late March 2009–days before the Iowa Supreme Court announced its Varnum v Brien ruling. About 26 percent of statewide respondents said they supported gay marriage, about 28 percent opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions, and about 37 percent opposed any legal recognition for same-sex couples.
In the Republican subgroup, nearly 8 percent of respondents supported gay marriage, about 36 percent opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions, and 51 percent opposed any legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Among respondents describing themselves as conservatives, the results were similar: 9 percent for marriage rights, 30 percent for civil unions, and 55 percent against any legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Even among frequent church attenders (more than once a week), about 7.5 percent supported gay marriage and a third of the sample supported civil unions. Among those who said they go to church once a week, 17 percent support gay marriage and 29 percent supported civil unions.
My hunch is that Fong’s way of supporting a marriage amendment without attacking gay people would appeal to Republicans who back either marriage equality or civil unions. They sure aren’t going to support Bob Vander Plaats with his damn the torpedoes promise to stop gay marriage on day one, even at the risk of being impeached. They probably won’t be thrilled about State Representative Chris Rants or Iowa Senate minority leader Paul McKinley after they keep trying to attach marriage amendments to unrelated bills during next year’s legislative session.
There’s also the question of issue stance vs. issue emphasis. The Hawkeye poll doesn’t give us a sense of how strongly respondents feel about gay marriage compared to other issues, but a poll commissioned by the Iowa First Foundation in March suggested that most Iowans rank economic issues ahead of social issues. The Iowa Republican poll taken earlier this month indicated that voters’ top priorities are the economy, jobs and fiscal issues.
Fong may appeal to Republicans who oppose gay marriage but feel other issues are more important. Radio host Deace is probably helping Fong with these voters when he attacks Fong for not condemning homosexuality. Deace’s position is arguably more consistent; he thinks society should not condone homosexuality and therefore should not recognize same-sex unions. Fong’s illogical stance may appeal to a plurality of Republicans, however.
If Fong becomes the GOP nominee for governor, his “live and let live, but not with equal rights” position may be less likely to turn off swing voters who either support legal recognition for same-sex couples or oppose it but think economic issues are more important. Meanwhile, people like Marlys Popma will reassure grumbling social conservatives that Fong is still on their side.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.