The GOP's Gay President?

Written by Tim Mak on Sunday May 1, 2011

Fred Karger is running for president on the Republican ticket but he has no name recognition and no experience in elected office.

What do you do if you’re running for president, but have no name recognition and no experience in elected office? Like Republican Fred Karger, who is in just that situation, you’ll probably be making a lot of trips to New Hampshire and Iowa.

“I have a five state strategy, which is really just a two state strategy,” said Karger in an extensive interview with FrumForum. Since April 2010, when he announced that he was running for president – making him the first openly gay candidate for president from a major party – he has been to Iowa seven times, and New Hampshire thirteen times.

Most prominently known in California as a gay activist who fought to reveal the role of the Mormon church during the Proposition 8 referendum, Karger feels that that the Republican Party has drifted too far to the right. In 2008, Karger openly supported Hillary Clinton, donating thousands of dollars to her campaign (he supported some of her policies, but “just economically”, he says).

“It was a very difficult decision” at the time, Karger tells FrumForum. “I never really actively supported a Democrat at that level. But the Republican Party has moved so far to the right, even someone like John McCain, who I had always admired, seemed to compromise his positions.” Despite his flirtations with the Democratic Party, he says, he’s back to reform the GOP for the better – “to bring younger people in, and open up the party to all.”

Karger is an amicable enough fellow, and recognizes his weaknesses: his campaign slogan is ‘Fred, who?’ But being such an unknown figure means that he’s been spending a lot of time battling for people to take him seriously, often going to extreme efforts to garner even the tiniest amounts of attention.

Just a month ago, in order to win a straw poll at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire – student population: around 1900 – Karger spent a week shaking hands, handing out Frisbees, and manning a table. After a week of working the crowds, he managed to come in first, with 79 of 322 ballots cast, just five ahead Mitt Romney. But what is the effect of a full week’s hard work? Nearly nil.

It must be frustrating not to be noticed, and Karger is facing exclusion everywhere he looks. CPAC wouldn’t respond to his request for a speaking slot, and told him that they didn’t have room for his booth in the convention hall. The debates have largely shut him out. His campaign’s most successful achievement has been to get an invite to the South Carolina GOP debates in May. That is, if he can get 1% or more in five national polls by then – he has only one: on Friday, a FOX poll had him at 1% in the first national poll he was listed in.

But Karger is not a man to give up. Having cut his teeth as a political operative and worked under President Reagan (whose inner circle during the early California gubernatorial years was “quite gay”, he says), Karger wants “to bring that optimism that President Reagan had, and the ability to get along with people, I think that is something that I can do and bring to this campaign.” So despite the odds, Karger is at least a man who looks on the bright side.

However, Karger’s situation is not a result merely a result of exclusion. As a gay rights activist and former political consultant, he’s got a keen mind for organization and research, but faces genuine challenges on the ideas front. In fact, he’s downright unimpressive on the policy side.

He’s got an rousing enough idea: to restore the American entrepreneurial spirit. But what’s lacking is how to get there. Consider what he told FrumForum about fixing the economy:

“I want to empower people, I want to encourage people who are unemployed to take some of their own initiative. And that’s what’s lacking” he said. “People are just waiting at home for that phone to ring, or for some magic job to appear – well, let’s get out, start creating your own dog-watching service, or… make a candle, that is the entrepreneurial spirit of America. Go out, and buy a candle-making kit for $19.95, make five candles and sell them… those are the kinds of things I want to talk about.”

There’s a real argument behind the notion that the American spirit is wounded, but encouraging people to make candles or walk dogs isn’t a particularly faith-inspiring jobs plan. Doubtlessly, the candle market is down in this distressed economy. In any case, the American spirit jobs plan is, well, a bit too abstract to hope for success.

When asked about the Paul Ryan budget proposal, Karger couldn’t say whether he would vote for or against the Republican plan for reforming entitlements, telling FrumForum he “can’t say right now… I haven’t looked that closely at it. I’m just going to have to take a wait and see attitude right now.” It is simply not excusable for a serious presidential candidate to not have looked closely at the Paul Ryan budget plan.

To add to this problem, Karger’s campaign website doesn’t even have a platform, only a few bullet points on gay rights issues he’s hoping to address. There’s substantially more about his resume, however impressive, than what he would want to do with the power he is seeking.

Karger provides a refreshing reminder that the attitudes of younger voter are changing, especially towards gay rights. And perhaps there is a small niche in the electorate for a gay Republican presidential candidate. But if that candidate is to be Fred Karger, he still has a long way to go in order to prove that he’s worthy of being seen as a serious contender.