The Party of Helms

Fred Barnes knows just how to revive John McCain's listless presidential campaign -- gay-bashing his way to victory by more strongly emphasizing his desire to frustrate the goals of gay and lesbian Americans who want to serve their country in uniform or get married to people they love. There's perhaps no better time to recall that McCain guru/lobbyist Charlie Black used to be a Jesse Helms guy and liked his race-baiting campaign tactics.

As Ed Kilgore observed reviewing a book on Helms:

Helms was undoubtedly the living connection between the racial politics of the Old South and the religion-based cultural politics of the New Right. He was the one surviving segregationist of stature who never regretted or retracted his opposition to the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. His career-long opposition to any national gesture commemorating the civil rights movement (most notably, his interminable and often scurrilous rearguard efforts to taint the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.) made his strident rhetoric against voting rights enforcement and anything approaching affirmative action an afterthought. And Helms's two reelection campaigns (in 1990 and 1996) against African American Democrat Harvey Gantt pivoted on explicit race baiting, as Helms's Congressional Club allies later admitted to Link.

Helms practically invented the modern conservative politics of sexuality, along with the electoral mobilization of white conservative evangelicals, starting back in the 1970s. In 1977, he seized on Anita Bryant's successful campaign to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Miami and began building a national backlash against antidiscrimination laws. As early as 1979, he was making speeches about the terrible threat of "secular humanism" to Christianity, making the wonky Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies an unlikely villain. When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, Helms began an extended and violently worded campaign to "protect" Americans from the "perverts" whose "disgusting" habits were responsible for AIDS, while attacking efforts to find effective treatments. Most memorably, Helms single-handedly made the National Endowment of the Arts' subsidies for "obscene" and "homosexual" artwork a culture-war staple for nearly two decades.

And there we go. Fortunately, public support for gay and lesbian equality continues to strengthen over time, so these kind of tactics should have a limited shelf life.