Well, it happened, right on cue.
Just as the first openly gay presidential candidate, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, became a serious contender for the Democratic nomination Rush Limbaugh started goofing on his sexuality.
During a broadcast that aired the day of the New Hampshire primary, Limbaugh asked his audience how Buttigieg could run ads about how difficult parents find it to explain President Trump’s behavior to their children. “They’re looking at Mayor Pete, 37-year-old gay guy, mayor of South Bend, loves to kiss his husband on the debate stage,” Limbaugh said. “And they’re saying, okay, how’s this going to look, 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage next to Mr. Man Donald Trump? What’s going to happen there?”
It wasn’t a one-off remark; Limbaugh repeated his comments about Buttigieg kissing his husband throughout the show. Limbaugh was deliberately putting the image in the minds of his listeners. As if that wasn’t obvious enough, Limbaugh posted a photo of the two men kissing on his “Dittocam” and webpage. (For the record, the kiss is a real thing, but, as Buttigieg says “onstage we usually go for a hug.”)
That all goes to say, if Buttigieg’s sexuality is going to be weaponized against him in 2020, Limbaugh’s monologue was the opening salvo. Previous to Limbaugh, the only person to noticeably criticize Buttigieg’s lifestyle on the national stage was a Democratic Iowa caucus-goer caught on camera asking to retract her vote for him after learning that he is gay.
Buttigieg responded to both instances, in different ways. He was gracious to the Iowa woman, telling the media, “I wish she was able to see that my love is the same as her love for those that she cares about.” To Limbaugh, he was less understanding: “I’m not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.” Fair enough.
So, what is the best response to questions about whether a gay man can be elected president?
I wish I knew. Between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, I’d be delighted if we never had to talk about a president’s sex life ever, ever again. A president who doesn’t have sex with interns or talk about grabbing women by the genitals would be a delightful improvement.
Since I’m no expert on the subject, I decided to ask some Republicans who are: people who have initiated other uncomfortable conversations over the years within the Republican circles.
Here’s what they told me they would say to people like Limbaugh and the Iowa caucus goer:
Me: “Are you open to the idea of a First Gentlemen in the White House?”
Friend: “Of course!”
Me: “So who are you learning towards, right now – Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg?”
–Jeff Angelo, host of Need To Know With Jeff Angelo and former Republican Iowa state senator
“To Republicans worried about Pete’s morality, they can sleep soundly. He’s only been married one time.”
–S.E. Cupp, author, Host of CNN’s SE Cupp Unfiltered, and New York Daily News columnist
“You don’t, because it’s irrelevant. He should be judged on his record and his fitness for the Presidency just like everyone else.”
–Former Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo
“Mayor Pete is gay. El Rushbo might have a problem with that, but maybe the best thing to come out of this kerfuffle is President Trump announcing he would support a gay candidate.”
–Tyler Deaton, senior advisor, American Unity Fund & PAC, referencing Trump’s recent comments to Fox’s Geraldo Riveria that he would be open to voting for a gay presidential candidate
“It’s probably less about what I would tell her than what I would ask her. ‘In what way would Pete’s sexuality change or inhibit his ability to execute his duties as president?’ ‘There was clearly something about him that made you want to vote for him. What about him being gay changes that? Is it an electability concern? Or do you have a personal objection to his being gay?'”
–Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark
“I get that you have moral concerns here. But think of it this way: If he makes it to the White House, we absolutely will not see the president looking like a fat slob in an oversized tie OR wearing a hideous tan suit or Dad jeans for a minimum of four years. And you know the White House decor once the holidays hit will be A+, every single year. And we’re DEFINITELY not going to be learning about him paying off any busty porn stars over one-night-stands, or leaving stains on White House interns’ non-dry-cleaned dresses.”
–Liz Mair, former Republican National Committee online communications director
“Well Rush is a portly philanderer who is just trolling to cover up his own insecurities about his masculinity so I’m not sure there’s a serious way to respond to what he said since it’s more about his issues and his low regard for his listeners than what he really thinks about Pete. As for the Iowa woman: He struggled with coming to terms with this too—it’s not supposed to be easy—that’s okay. But judge him on his character and his values and give him the chance to demonstrate those to you. If you liked Kennedy or Clinton or Trump you’ve supported sinful straight men for president and I think Pete would give you pride in a way that none of them did.”
–Tim Miller, contributor to The Bulwark, communications consultant, former communications director for Jeb Bush and spokesman for the Republican National Committee
As Tyler Deaton points out, President Trump has previously said he could vote for a gay candidate. In a different interview with Fox News’s Steve Hilton last year, Trump was specifically asked how he felt about seeing Buttigieg “on stage with his husband” and whether it was “normal.” Trump replied, “I think it’s absolutely fine. I do . . . Yeah, I think it’s great. I think that’s something that perhaps some people will have a problem with, I have no problem with it whatsoever.”
Note how Trump hedges by saying “perhaps some other people” would have a problem with Buttigieg’s gayness. He did the same in the Rivera interview, mentioning that “I think there would be some that wouldn’t” vote for a gay person. And, we saw one of those people in Iowa, didn’t we?
What’s telling, however, is that Trump and Limbaugh won’t carry the banner of bigotry themselves. Still, they give cover for others who do. Even each other. On his show this Monday, Limbaugh said that following his 37-year-old-gay-guy-kissing-husband rant, Trump actually called him and encouraged him to stay strong:
“Hell, the president even called me about this!” Limbaugh said Monday on his show. “He said, ‘Rush, I just got to tell you something. Never apologize. Don’t ever apologize.'”
It’s like they’re waiting to plaster a big “TRUMP 2020” sign over the anti-gay parade and jump in front of it in hopes of marching to victory in 2020.
Bottom line: If smearing Mayor Pete’s sexuality helps Trump, he and his allies will do it. Winning is Trump’s only real form of pride.