“Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” – Job 38:11
Sometime last month, I was at a party full of energetic young conservatives from various parts of the country. The topic of the recent government shutdown arose. Everybody agreed that Obamacare is a nightmare and that the general public would soon come to see that liberal pipe-dream-big-government reforms are dark and full of terrors. But as the government was, at the moment, shut down, we all felt obliged to comment on that particular tactic.
In order to avoid a tedious dispute over the merits (or lack thereof) of either side—and to resist the enduring conflation of anecdotes with data—I will elide the conclusions we reached in favor of a simpler observation. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke for nigh a full day to make his grand stand against the Democrats’ not-so-affordable-or-caring reform. In the process, he was joined or supported by many Republicans eager to signal their willingness to die on the hill of opposition to a bad law before God and man.
I point this out not because I mean to argue whether Cruz and his supporters accomplished anything substantial in all those 21 hours. I point it out only to compare it to Ted Cruz’s words on the Senate floor on Monday defending his opposition to a bill that would outlaw discrimination against LGBT Americans.
He said nothing.
It is remarkable to think that not even a decade ago, a bipartisan coalition opposed gay rights loudly and often in an era where prohibitions on gay unions were passed from Oregon to Virginia. Today, however, Ken Cuccinelli seems poised to lose a winnable election in a swing state with a marriage ban primarily because of his extremist reputation on “social issues” (including an inconveniently relevant attempt to eliminate LGBT employment protections at Virginia universities). And yesterday, not one of 30 Republicans who voted against cloture used floor time to speak against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate.
Ted Cruz said nothing. Mike Lee said nothing. Marco Rubio said nothing. Jeff Sessions said nothing.
This isn’t to say that no Republicans spoke on the matter. To the contrary, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois gave his first floor speech in the two years since his stroke to urge support for the bill. He was joined in his affirmation by other Republicans including moderate Susan Collins, staunch red-state conservative Orrin Hatch, and Tea Party favorites Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey (former president of the notoriously primary-challenging Club for Growth)—none of whom, for what it’s worth, have expressed support for gay marriage.
Contrast this to the House, where Speaker Boehner joined his peculiarly silent Senate colleagues by announcing his opposition to ENDA through a spokesman. While the Ohioan did not step in front of a camera to explain why the law doesn’t deserve a vote, he did take pains to lie about whether current federal law already protects an American worker from being fired for being gay, as many people think it does. (It does not.)
If one weren’t careful, one might think there was no argument to be made as to why LGBT Americans should be subject to unjust discrimination.
Of course, there are plenty of actors willing to say a great deal about why ENDA is supposedly bad law. Some are sensible. Others, less so. And I suspect at least a few Senate opponents will find their tongues, if only for a moment, before the final votes are cast. The duo from Kentucky is even offering an amendment to attach right-to-work protections to the bill. Imagine that: with the passage of a single law, American workers could be free from unjust discrimination for being who they are or for refusing union coercion. (While I do dare to dream, I won’t hold my breath on that one.) But whether or not Boehner eventually yields to a position favored by a majority of voters in every state, it is time to take stock of how the tides have broadly shifted on social politics.
If any prominent elected official is willing to make a fiery denunciation of anti-discrimination protections for our neighbors and loved ones, let them do so openly and proudly. If there are sound objections to be heard, let us hear them in both chambers, and allow the American people to reach their conclusions. Opponents of gay rights will certainly find some wizened applause in certain quarters. Those understandably leery of anti-discrimination laws more broadly will have to weigh the options and effects. But whatever happens, allies of gay Americans may at least take some solace in watching how the remnant of anti-gay politics whimpers into a resentful and weakening crouch as a new generation of conservatives moves on to modern challenges worthy of our energy and effort.
The era of anti-gay political dominance—or even parity—in the national scene is over. The silence on the floor of the ENDA opposition merely shows that, finally, everybody knows it.