Six Democrat candidates for President stepped cautiously onto a Los Angeles stage last night. Two of them — Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Gov. Mike Gravel, were a bit more comfortable than the others, being the only ones who have declared themselves in favor of gay marriage. The other four — Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill), Sen. John Edwards (NC), and Gov. Bill Richardson(NM) — cautiously framed their responses proving that brevity is not only the soul of wit, it’s sometimes a pol’s only camouflage.
The Dems succeeded last night only in muddying their already confusing positions on the “gay rights” agenda their party claims to embrace.
The first presidential debate held exclusively to discuss gay and lesbian issues was co-sponsored by gay rights activist group the Human Rights Campaign and LOGO, a gay television channel which live-streamed the debate on its website.
The participants hoped to be embraced by an increasingly vocal but nevertheless small group of voters. The Democrats wanted to contrast their openness (code word for liberalism) with the Republican candidates who uniformly refused to participate. Last night’s audience held only 200 people, which is reflective of the small homosexual population in the US. According to a CNN poll, only 3% of voters in 2006 identified themselves as gay or lesbian. Through their political activism, the minority group wants to claim to have a bigger influence than its numbers would otherwise prove.
The candidates came armed with scripted responses to anticipated questions posed by the panelists: gay rocker Melissa Ethridge, gay rights activist Margaret Carlson, HRC President Joe Solmones and openly gay Washington Post writer Jonathon Capehart.
The battle over gay marriage spurred the evening with noticeable discomfort on the part of the candidates. Ethridge asked if candidates thought people were born gay. Richardson stumbled into his answer that it was a “choice” and received significant criticism afterward. His apology for this “wrong” answer was promptly noted in a press release following the debate.
Hillary Clinton, last up for questioning, stuck coldly to her formulated answer on gay marriage. "I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions," said Clinton, maintaining she prefers to “let the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage."
Dennis Kucinich attributed hope for the gay community to the transformative power of “human love” — and for once seemed a favorite. Gravel played his gay marriage support card and labeled the other candidates “weak” for their positions.
Frontrunners Obama and Clinton maintain liberal positions on most social issues such as universal healthcare and abortion rights so the opposition to gay marriage is somewhat surprising. But a poll study from Quinnipac University may show the answer. Released August 8, the poll found that of those voters affected by gay rights issues, the majority respond negatively. America isn’t ready to accept gay marriage, as Bill Richardson asserted last night, and until data shows they are, these Democrats won’t pander to the gay community on what is apparently its key issue.
"If we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under the law, then my sense is that’s enormous progress," Obama said.
But the sentiment was apologetic more than confident. Obama polished up his minority status once again, comparing homosexual discrimination to the civil rights movement, saying, "When you’re a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside.”
Clinton, Richardson and Edwards all apologized for previous statements or decisions on homosexual issues. Solomese said post-debate, “While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear.”
Edwards, in keeping with the consistently contradictory theme of the evening, maintained that, “My campaign for the presidency is about equality across the board.” But he can’t have it both ways and the audience knows it. On the Human Rights Campaign blog site this morning, viewers responded to the debate, mentioning the candidates “skirted” the issues.
Other topics covered included military policy, healthcare funding issues, hate crimes legislation, and the Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton was forced to defend her husband’s homosexual policies for the military while Obama pontificated on a “separate but equal” view on civil unions.
In a statement, Solomese said, “We pulled the curtain back a bit and gave all Americans a deeper look inside the candidates’ core beliefs about the issues that affect our community.”
With all the apologies for previous “mistakes” in word and voting action, the Democratic candidates continue to struggle to define what their core beliefs are. Last night, they did what they came to do: go through a debate on the gay agenda without getting themselves in trouble with mainstream Americans who don’t accept ideas like gay marriage. Perhaps the biggest winners last night were Joe Biden and Chris Dodd who did not attend due to “scheduling conflicts.” They, at least, avoided having to wiggle around uncomfortable, misleading responses that will — inevitably — lead to another apology. Being a liberal means always having to say you’re sorry.