When should the gay rights movement declare political victory? Some think success will come when gay marriage is legal nationwide; others are holding out for an LGBT omnibus equality bill. But my sense is that the true political triumph will arrive when conservatives can no longer scare up votes and dollars by running against gay people. Once there’s no political capital to be gained from opposing gay rights, no politician will oppose gay rights.
When will that moment come? Sooner than you might expect. On Saturday, the Huffington Post ran a fun story pondering why Republicans went totally silent on President Barack Obama’s executive LGBT nondiscrimination order. One GOP congressman claimed he hadn’t heard about the order. When pressed, Speaker of the House John Boehner simply sighed, “The president signs a lot of executive orders.” Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a supporter of the Senate’s flawed, failed bill, gently chided Obama for leaving out Portman’s preferred (and widely maligned) religious exemptions. But not a single member of Congress took the bait and slammed Obama on the merits of the order.
This, surely, is a turning point. Republicans eager to bash Obama had a number of hoary talking points at their disposal: reckless disregard for religious liberty, tyrannical use of the executive order, special treatment of an undeserving class. But conservatives kept their arrows tucked away in their quivers, in what was surely a coordinated effort to prevent Democrats from seizing yet another anti-gay Republican sound bite to campaign against. (Never one to follow the crowd, Rep. Michele Bachmann did say on Wednesday that gays are plotting to legalize pedophilia.)
The tacit message of this strategy—a retreat, really—is clear: Loudly opposing an LGBT job discrimination measure is no longer politically tenable. Handed the opportunity to rail against gay rights or in favor of a “religious liberty” to discriminate, Republicans balked. That doesn’t mean they’ll start supporting ENDA outright. But when Democrats renew their push for the bill in the near future, the party may have functionally forfeited most of its future objections. If an LGBT job discrimination measure isn’t worth condemning in 2014, why would it be worth combatting in 2015? Don’t expect Republicans to have a coherent answer to that question when it next arises.