When William F. Buckley Jr. revived American conservatism by founding National Review in 1955, he said the magazine's job was to stand "athwart history, yelling stop." At that time, history did seem to be moving in the wrong direction if you were a conservative, and Buckley was gutsy to admit as much. Later, during the Reagan era and after, conservatives enjoyed thinking that history was on their side. They saw themselves as riding it like a bronco, yelling not stop but faster! faster!
That's not how they look now. On no issue is history moving faster than on "gay rights"--an already antiquated term for full and equal participation and acceptance of gay men and women in American life. The work is not finished, of course, but what took black Americans more than a century, gays have accomplished in two or three decades (thanks in no small part to blacks, who designed the template for this kind of social revolution). We still argue about it, but the whole spectrum of debate has moved left. A right-wing thug like Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich probably has more advanced views about homosexuals than dainty liberals of the past century like Adlai Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey. And whatever the actual views, public expressions of overt homophobia are now unacceptable from any national politician.
The debate of 14 years ago about gays in the military seems almost quaint. Kids grow up today with gay friends, gay parents, gay parents of friends and gay friends of parents. If only blacks and whites were as thoroughly mixed together in society as gays and straights are. Kids are also exposed constantly to an entertainment culture in which gays are not merely accepted but in some ways dominant. You rarely see a reality show without a gay cast member, while Rosie O'Donnell is a coveted free agent and Ellen DeGeneres is America's sweetheart. The notion that gays must be segregated out of the military for the sake of our national security must strike Americans younger than, say, 40 as simply weird, just as we of the previous generation find the rules of racial segregation weird. (O.K., run that by me again: they needed separate drinking fountains because ... why?)
For 14 years the GOP has stood still as history has gone charging past. In last week's CNN-sponsored debate, every Republican presidential candidate said he supports "Don't ask, don't tell," the arch compromise of 1993. This ridiculous policy allows servicemen and -women to be gay in some existential sense but tosses them out if they talk about it or do anything about it. Most congressional Republicans voted for "Don't ask, don't tell," but the party platform for the 1996 presidential election retreated from it: "We oppose Bill Clinton's assault on the culture and traditions of the armed forces, especially his attempt to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. We affirm that homosexuality is incompatible with military service." This last formulation, repeated in the GOP platforms of 2000 and 2004, is especially head in the sand. They can "affirm" anything they want, but homosexuality is obviously not incompatible with military service. There have always been gays in the military. The question is what conditions they serve under.
This used to be an issue that Republicans employed to torture Democrats. No longer. While Democrats hardly build their campaigns around it, in the CNN debates last week every Democrat was happy to go on record as favoring lifting the ban once and for all. By contrast, every Republican cowered behind "Don't ask, don't tell," patently wishing the whole thing would go away. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney agreed that now "is not the time" to reopen the issue. Mike Huckabee blathered nonsensically about the "uniform code of military conduct." John McCain was almost campy, practically bursting into song about our "most wonderful military." Not one of them attempted to defend the ban on its merits. But not one would oppose it.
And yet not one, I suspect, has any doubt about where this issue is going. When opponents of gay rights talk ominously about a "gay agenda," they are not completely wrong. There has been an agenda in the sense of a long-term strategy, not unlike the carefully plotted strategy of Thurgood Marshall and others in the civil rights movement that ended formal racial segregation. It was a brilliant decision to start with the military rather than attempt to outlaw discrimination generally or push right away for gay marriage. Twenty years from now, maybe sooner, gays will have it all.
On bigger issues too, today's Republicans find themselves on the wrong side of history. On the advice of my fellow TIME columnist Bill Kristol, Republicans killed any health-care reform 13 years ago with the slogan "There is no crisis." No candidate of either party is saying that now. In fact, the crisis has gotten worse and will be harder to solve than it was in 1994.
Of course, you shouldn't change your principles just to be on the right side of history. Standing athwart history and yelling stop can be noble, and sometimes even works. But that's not what today's Republicans seem to be doing. They are chasing after history from a few yards behind.