The Emerging Values Debate

Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), has come out swinging in response to the suggestion, repeated recently by innumerable cable news pundits, that same-sex marriage was the lightning rod that drew conservative voters to the polls and insured Pres. George W. Bush’s re-election.

“This was a total and complete homophobic lie,” Foreman said at a town hall meeting held Monday night at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center.

But shortly after making that statement, Foreman offered another insight that underscored how vital it is for the LGBT community to formulate a coherent response to a political perception that perhaps is gaining wide allegiance.

“It was wrong and it wasn’t just the right,” he said, in surveying those who had advanced the theory. “It was some of our own friends.”

Indeed. Some of our best friends…

Let’s start with one of America’s most famous homosexual politicians. Congressman Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts Democrat, has jumped into a post-election spat between Democratic San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who grabbed world attention by authorizing over 4,000 gay and lesbian weddings in February, and California’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Diane Feinstein, herself a former San Francisco mayor.

Feinstein, surveying the strong Republican turnout last Tuesday, faulted her successor at City Hall for creating a gay rights tableau in the media that was “too much, too fast, too soon.” When Newsom defended his actions, Frank piped up to say that, in contrast to the orderly same-sex nuptials brought on by the Supreme Judicial Court in his state, the San Francisco weddings “created a sense there was chaos” that moved swing voters away from Democrat John Kerry.

Feinstein and Frank, and other even more significant Democratic voices, were prompted to offer their critique in the wake of highly trumpeted exit polling data that showed that more American voters cited “moral values”—22 percent of everyone sampled—than any other of six choices of the issue that mattered most to them. Though moral values were not defined in the voter survey, the meaning it had in the minds of voters was clear from the presidential preferences of that nearly one quarter of the electorate. Eighty per cent of them voted for Bush.

As is too often the case with polling data, this bit of information has not been publicly discussed with any high degree of discernment. Voters were offered seven issues to choose from—including terrorism, economy/jobs, Iraq, education, health care and taxes. Economy/jobs as a leading issue for voters scored a close second at 20 percent, not surprising given the lackluster U.S. economic performance during the past three years. Terrorism and Iraq aggregated as general foreign policy concerns—certainly a pairing upon which Bush administration officials have been insistent—were cited by 34 percent of all voters.

So it is not at all clear that moral values can fairly be characterized as the issue that moved the American public this year.

Nor do the presidential election results in key states where anti-gay marriage amendments were on the ballot sustain the Feinstein-Frank analysis. Of the 11 states where a tally was taken, only three were ever considered competitive—Michigan, Ohio and Oregon. The amendments passed handily in all three states, as they did elsewhere, but Kerry carried Michigan and Oregon.

This cursory examination of the available data should be sufficient to put a brake on the scramble to “blame the gays.” But, if we learned anything this year, it is that political attacks—as Foreman correctly prescribed—must be quickly answered, strongly and often.

The ranks of Democrats who have raised concerns about the saliency of gay marriage as a conservative wedge issue starts right at the top with former Pres. Bill Clinton. In the days immediately following the election, Clinton let it be known that he had advised Kerry to take advantage of the 11 amendment battles to underscore his opposition to same-sex marriage. Kerry supports the effort currently underway to amendment the Massachusetts constitution to replace same-sex marriage with civil unions, but he strongly opposes Bush’s federal constitutional amendment effort and was silent on the 11 ballot questions. Presumably Kerry saw no benefit in rubbing salt in the wounds of prominent gay supporters already disturbed by the 11-state right-wing effort in what would be a fruitless quest for evangelical Christian votes.

The leak from the former president was not the only signal that the party’s Clinton wing is bearish on gay marriage. Harold Ickes, a prominent New York political operative close to both the former president and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was widely quoted saying, “I’m not saying Kerry did anything wrong on this, but I think that we ignored in large measure the three big cultural issues of this election—guns, abortion and gay rights, epitomized by gay marriage.”

Ickes’ willingness to step up suggests that the marriage backlash may find broad support in the party—among big-money New Yorkers, among the centrist Democratic Leadership Council crowd Clinton long courted and, most significantly perhaps, on the part of Sen. Clinton, who will undoubtedly face mounting pressure to throw her hat into the ring for 2008.

Sen. John Edwards is another likely 2008 contender and he has consistently emphasized his opposition to same-sex marriage. What impact he believes the issue had on the defeat of Kerry and himself is unclear.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, mentioned frequently in the past week as the sort of Democrat who can show the party how to win in states that are very red, did not address the marriage question directly, but offered a post-mortem reeking with coded language: “In the heartland, where I am from, there are doubts. Too often we’re caricatured as a bi-coastal cultural elite that is condescending at best and contemptuous at worst to the values that Americans hold in their daily lives.”

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor said to be aiming for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee and who must be counted as a potential 2008 contender, could offer a counter-balance to the growing consternation voiced toward gay marriage. Though Dean has never endorsed gay marriage, he spoke up for federal recognition of civil unions in his campaign and, more to the point, consistently argued as a candidate, undoubtedly answering concerns that Vermont’s civil union law would hobble him nationally, that divisive social issues are not priorities for American voters. Dean might be willing to remind Democrats to stick to their knitting and focus on the central economic and health care challenges still facing average American families.

But, speculation about 2008 is premature, to say the very least.

Many things outside the control of Democratic presidential hopefuls will happen between now and then and the immediate issue facing the LGBT community is to join the national discussion among Democrats and stave off any immediate further deterioration in our political standing.

For now, that means reinforcing the party’s commitment to stare down Bush’s efforts to pass a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage—and erase the progress in Massachusetts and perhaps even in states with more limited partnership rights.

In July, Senate Democrats, joined by a small number of moderate Republicans, were able to table the effort to advance the amendment. The president did not even muster a simple majority, never mind the two-thirds he would need to move the effort through Congress.

But, Democrats lost three Senate seats in this election, and four in the House.

Our community’s first priority must be to see to it that the Democrats have not lost their principles and nerve as well.

Before Congress reconvenes in January, national leaders of the gay movement, at NGLTF and the Human Rights Campaign, must work to shore up our defenses on this critical issue facing our community.

We also publish:

More from Around NYC