Approach to gay issues is key matter for Democrats - Candidates must gauge public opinion
By Mike Dorning
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 9, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO - The high political anxiety that gay rights can provoke in Democratic presidential aspirants broke out into the open early in this campaign, as the party's two leading candidates both stumbled when asked to give unrehearsed answers on morality and homosexuality.
Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), both schooled in the politics of home states with influential gay communities, each instinctively dodged in March when first asked to respond to a top military officer who, in justifying the Pentagon's ban on openly gay soldiers, publicly declared homosexuality immoral.
Only after a torrent of criticism from gay donors and supporters over their initial hesitancy did Clinton and Obama come out with unequivocal statements that they consider homosexuality to be moral, repudiating Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There will be no such time to recover when Democratic candidates appear Thursday at a live televised forum in Los Angeles to face questions from gay-rights activists including singer Melissa Etheridge.
While opposition operatives will be watching for a video moment that later can be used to portray a candidate as out of the social mainstream, gay-rights advocates will be alert to signs of discomfort or hedged commitment.
'Are they passionate?'
"I think people will be looking for body language, the choice of words to see how comfortable the candidates are. Are they passionate?" said Ethan Geto, a longtime gay political activist in New York who is an informal adviser to Clinton on related issues.
Democratic candidates face evolving but still mixed public attitudes toward homosexuality.
Their own party includes an important constituency of gay donors and political activists as well as large numbers of social liberals who look to candidates' views on gay rights as a bellwether for commitment to broader progressive values such as tolerance.
Public opinion overall is moving slowly toward greater acceptance of a range of gay-rights positions, and passions have cooled since same-sex marriage erupted as a key issue on the verge of the last presidential campaign. Even among social conservatives, illegal immigration has supplanted gay marriage as a source of grass-roots fervor.
"There was a great deal of shock in 2003 and 2004, when the gay marriage issue became prominent, and things have calmed down a bit," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which studies public opinion.
But polls show the public still largely disapproves of gay marriage and remains closely divided on whether homosexual relations are morally acceptable. Democrats also have fresh memories of gay rights as a wedge issue used to portray the party's candidates as removed from traditional cultural values and a cause to galvanize social conservatives to turn out to vote for Republicans.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Republican candidates frequently highlight their opposition to gay marriage and gay-rights causes, either directly or by promising to uphold "the sanctity of marriage" and "traditional values."
"They're code words. Everybody knows what they're talking about," Foreman said.
But, Foreman added, Democratic candidates rarely place support for gay-rights causes at the center of their campaigns by incorporating the themes in stump speeches or messages to general audiences.
When Democratic candidates are "asked about gay people and our causes, they freeze up," Foreman said.
During the 2004 election, social conservatives placed referendums banning same-sex marriage on the ballots in 13 states. Though Democratic strategists disagree on how important a factor the issue was in the outcome of the presidential campaign, conservative evangelicals turned out in large numbers, aiding President Bush's re-election.
2004 presidential race
Bob Shrum, a media adviser to 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, wrote in a recent book that former President Bill Clinton considered the issue so damaging that he urged Kerry to support a federal ban on gay marriage as a way to defuse the matter. Kerry did not do so.
On the eve of his own re-election in 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, permitting states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples. Many saw that as a protective maneuver.
In the successful Democratic campaign to retake control of Congress last year, party leaders worked to de-emphasize hot-button social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control that divide its working-class base. And in the current campaign, the party's major candidates have sought to focus on opposition to the war in Iraq and populist stands on economic issues.
Still, the two parties present sharp distinctions. In debates this year, all of the Democratic presidential candidates have said they would favor ending the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and permitting gays to openly serve in the armed forces. All the Republican candidates support keeping the current policy on gay military personnel.
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The two-hour Democratic debate will be broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. CDT on the gay-themed cable channel Logo. The channel is generally available with premium service packages. The debate also will be available online at logoonline.com.