Republicans face a divisive, politically risky brawl over the North Carolina bathroom bill, a battle freshly stoked by the Obama administration’s call for transgender schoolchildren to use restrooms matching their gender identities.
Presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has said the issue is settled, but many conservatives – already wary that Trump isn’t one of them – are outraged, charging that the White House is not only playing the role of federal bully but also creating dangerous conditions for students.
As conservatives raged Friday against the Obama directive, Trump said the issue should be settled by the states and told the cable news program “Fox & Friends” that he doesn’t have an opinion on whether boys should be allowed to use girls’ rooms, calling it a “new issue” that he doesn’t yet have an opinion on.
Trump’s line hews to that of Republican Party officials, who’ve sought for years to soften the GOP’s image as intolerant. But the party has been split on such issues in recent years.
“The party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” a 2013 state of the party report warned after Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election. “If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
But the idea of allowing transgender people to use the restrooms where they feel most comfortable is disturbing to many conservatives. They’ve been enthusiastically behind the North Carolina law barring transgender people from using the bathrooms they see as appropriate to their sexual identities.
“You can be tolerant and accepting of the gay lifestyle and transgender people, but against a naked anatomical male standing in a shower in front of some teenage girl,” said James Bopp Jr., a veteran Indiana attorney active in Republican Party affairs. “That’s a privacy issue, not one of respect and tolerance.”
Safety and kindness should be the guiding principles, not threats from the bullies in Washington. Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, on Obama administration policy on transgender students
After all, schools “may be forced to violate the privacy of other students and perhaps even create trauma for the very kids Obama pretends to protect,” said Penny Nance, chief executive officer and president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group.
The bathroom policy is also another example of Washington inserting itself into local affairs, some Republicans say. The administration is trying to “unlawfully impose its political will through threats and intimidation,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group.
“Obama & Transgender bathroom school policy shows exactly why the Federal govt should not be involved in public education!” tweeted Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Curbing what they see as overreaching, intrusive government has long been a Republican rallying cry.
At its winter meeting in January, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution calling on the Education Department to rescind its interpretation of laws that “wrongly” include “facility use issues by transgender students.”
Conservatives see the issue playing well in much of the country. “You want to talk about an issue that gets to the soccer moms?” asked Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
Some Democrats welcomed the Republican reaction, arguing that most voters are “agnostic” about the issue – or are firmly in one camp or another.
“I love it when Republicans are talking about this stuff all day long because they’re not talking about jobs, the economy, issues that swing voters care about,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale. “Voters are asking, ‘Why are you wasting your time fighting this when there are so many other issues in the country?’ ”
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the proposal had “very little to do with politics, except for our critics who want to make this entirely about politics.”
Earnest said the directive was a response to school administrators, teachers and parents who want “workable, practical solutions” to caring for students. Yet he couldn’t resist a few digs, contending that school districts can’t make policy based on “a political argument that has very little grounding in actual facts.”
“Posting a law enforcement officer outside of every bathroom to check the birth certificate of people who are walking through the door, that’s not a practical solution,” Earnest said.
Earnest also blasted Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who demanded earlier this week that the schools superintendent in Fort Worth resign over his directive that schools permit transgender students to use the restrooms they were more comfortable with.
Patrick’s statements “underscore the risk of electing a right-wing radio host to a statewide elected office,” Earnest said.
As news of the administration action broke early Friday, the Family Research Council sent a letter to supporters, titled “Protect Our Children,” asking for “as generous a contribution as you can.”
Polls suggest it’s unclear who stands to gain politically. By 2 to 1, people under 30 favor letting transgender people use the restrooms of their identities, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month. But among those over 60, the ratio flips, as 2 to 1 say restroom use depends on one’s birth gender.
57 percent oppose requiring transgender individuals to use facilities that do not match their gender identities, while 38 percent back such laws, says a new CNN/ORC poll
Overall, Americans broadly agree with the seniors, but three-fourths favor laws guaranteeing equal protection for transgender people.
Many in the GOP want more tolerance. Trump said last month that people should use the restroom “they feel is appropriate” – remarks that drew criticism from then-rival Ted Cruz, who said Trump was allowing boys to use the girls’ room. “Have we gone stark raving nuts?” Cruz said.
The American Unity Fund, a conservative gay rights group, plans to fight for transgender rights. “People can’t point to a single instance where there’s been a safety issue,” said Tyler Deaton, fund senior adviser. “The opponents are the ones creating the problem.”
There are rumblings from conservatives about including language in the party platform opposing or criticizing the administration’s actions and supporting the North Carolina bill. Traditionally, platform-writers arrive in the convention city the week before the main event. They get a lot of media attention, and should a fierce battle flare over transgender rights, it’s likely to get massive publicity – the sort of culture clash GOP leaders have been trying mightily to avoid.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who has not said publicly whether the law should stand or be repealed, said the platform should center on broader issues. “Most Americans are worried about homeland security, economic security and national security,” he said.
And to those who say the transgender issue should be included? “With all due respect,” Tillis said, “I disagree.”