Engage the Process

Perhaps the only unarguable lesson that came out of the Iowa caucuses this past week is that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is unlikely to be wrapped up by the time New Yorkers are able to cast their votes on March 2.

As the race hurtles toward New Hampshire, it appears as if at least four Democrats––Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark––will have some reason to contest the race at least through Super Tuesday, the simultaneous round of primaries in ten states, including New York and California, the first week in March.

During the past year, the field of Democratic candidates uniformly coalesced around a similar, pro-gay posture––including support for domestic partnerships or civil unions, if not same-sex marriage, and against the military ban on gay and lesbian soldiers serving openly.

Meanwhile, Pres. George W. Bush continued his courting of the religious right with staunch denunciations of same-sex marriage and escalating signals that he would join the fight to change the Constitution if rulings out of “activist judges” such as those in Massachusetts threatened the ability to other states to mount a successful defense of “traditional” marriage.

Conventional wisdom among gay activists outside of Log Cabin Republican circles has been that any of the Democrats would be preferable to Bush on queer issues–– not to mention a host of other major concerns animating the widespread desire for change at the White House.

That is undoubtedly true, but lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists still have plenty to contribute in shaping the course of this election campaign and influencing the policy debates in 2005 and beyond should a Democrat win in November.

The first point to recognize is that each of the major Democratic candidates still has room to grow in their stance on key LGBT issues. Dean, who signed the Vermont civil union law in 2000 and has aggressively courted gay voters in this campaign, has the greatest visibility on our issues, but like his major opponents, his advocacy falls short of endorsing same-sex marriage. Kerry, who has a very good gay record, including a 1996 vote––during a reelection campaign––against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), has been curiously muted in this campaign in his gay outreach. Clark has demonstrated a strong interest in recent months in increasing his profile in the LGBT community, while Edwards, though friendly with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), remains perhaps the greatest enigma.

Dean’s evolution since the civil marriage debate in Vermont, however, is instructive in demonstrating what progress can be made. As governor, confronted with a state Supreme Court ruling that left little wiggle room, Dean was not at the front of the pack in crafting the civil union legislation. However, having signed it, he has assumed an unapologetic stance about it in his presidential campaign, often talking about how the solution fits into the American tradition of fair play. Pressed over the past 18 months on the gay marriage issue, Dean has gone incrementally further than the other major candidates––saying at an HRC debate last summer that he would support federal recognition of Massachusetts marriage and repeal of DOMA. Dean’s willingness to show this flexibility is testament to the influence of prominent gay advisors in his campaign.

LGBT pressure on each of the Democratic campaigns is also important because this is a time when we need prominent Americans, including those with something to lose politically, to stand with our community. As the president proved in his State of the Union address this week, he is willing to use any setting, no matter how majestic, to curry favor with the anti-gay crowd who are in a froth over the prospect of same-sex marriage. Bush’s calculated coupling of the drug and STD risks facing American youth with an attack on gay marriage was one of the slyest, but most cynical rhetorical ploys in recent memory.

It is up to our community, here in this city, to make sure that in the weeks leading up to the New York primary the Democratic candidates speak out on the president’s gay-bashing cynicism.

One final reason we must press our case with all of the Democrats in the field is the lesson we learned during the Clinton presidency. No president in history was so open to gay issues and so committed to bringing our community openly into public life than Clinton, yet, ever the pragmatist, he failed us repeatedly––on gays in the military, on DOMA, and on federal needle exchange programs, to name a few examples. The 1993 fiasco on the military issue may genuinely have been the result of his inexperience in Washington, but he went AWOL on DOMA and the needle exchange issue even as he faced a weak challenge from Bob Dole that he turned into a nationwide victory lap. In the end, Clinton, our greatest friend, seemed unwilling to risk any real political capital on issues of critical importance to our community.

If the country is fortunate enough and smart enough to move a Democrat into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next January, the LGBT community better know a lot more about his willingness to watch our back than we did about Clinton 12 years ago. Let’s go out there in the next five weeks and find out as much as we can.

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