January 22, 2008
Economic Panic: Good or Bad for Gays?
Posted by: Kevin
This morning, there is a palpable sense of panic across all the world's financial markets. It can't be ignored by anyone. Certainly, if you're an investor, a homeowner or you own a business, it's likely you're already hurting. But from a purely political sense, is the economic crisis good or bad for gay issues in this election season? Does it factor in at all?
Strangely enough, at first glance seems that economic downturns have been good for gays in recent election campaigns, while booming economic times have been largely bad.
It's conventional wisdom that when people are worried about their jobs or their pocketbooks, they don't really want to hear about homosexuals, abortions or the ACLU. Blaming gays or abortionists for the loss of one's job just doesn't wash, but someone who comes across as the one who cares the most about your job loss will get room to be nice to other people, even the gays. In boom times, when the average voter is content and fairly disinterested in voting, both sides tend to throw cultural bombs to turn out their bases in a zero-sum game. That's when the pitchforks tend to come out for us.
The 1992 presidential campaign was seminal for gay rights as a national campaign issue, at least where gays were at once condemned and courted. The U.S. economy was lurching into a recession as the primaries began that year, which launched the populist campaign of Pat Buchanan through his crushing defeat of incumbent President George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire. Polling showed that Buchanan's harsh, angry economic message pitched to those most harmed by the economic downturn helped fuel his victory there, and built a national sense of resentment against Bush. However, when that message expanded into lurid far right cultural attacks on gays, 'feminists', immigrants and pro-choice voters, it ran out of steam with the general public. The momentum of Buchanan's insurgency culminated at the horrendously anti-gay 1992 Republican National Convention, which the GOP never recovered from.
As the economy worsened, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot seized the middle ground and captured the public's concern with economic visions for change. Clinton ultimately connected with the middle on their economic fears ("it's the economy, stupid"), which gave him room to make an unprecedented play for gays, making a list of promises unheard of by a leading presidential candidate in history. By all accounts, Clinton won that election on the basis of earning the trust of a nation worried about its wallet. The gays, in political terms, won along with him.
From March 2000 to October 2002, the dot-com crash shook the world economy. It didn't have the same impact on average Americans the way the '92 recession did (or the current mortgage meltdown has), but it hit dynamic tech sectors very hard and raised fears about the long-term solvency of Social Security as the baby boom generation began to age. There was a budget surplus and plenty of room for the nation to maneuver. In the end, both sides were faced with making the argument as to who was better at making those maneuvers against the looming end to good economic times.
It boiled down to "who do you trust?" and "who is the better leader?", factors that see-sawed all year between the two. And it devolved into a war over the favor of independent voters. This meant both Al Gore and George W. Bush had to blur and bland-out anything that independents would view as "sharp edges."
Gore boldly chose conservative (then-) Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Bush, the "compassionate conservative", took hits nationally for going too far to the right in South Carolina in his struggle to eliminate insurgent Senator John McCain; weeks later, Bush met with gay Republicans and said he was "a better person" for it. Both parties had openly gay speakers at their conventions in prime time (Elizabeth Birch for the Democrats, Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) for the GOP). Meanwhile, an anti-gay third-party campaign by a diminished Pat Buchanan fell completely flat.
Critics will argue that neither the 1992 or 2000 elections resulted in a sea-change of positive federal legislation for gay Americans. In fact, the Clinton presidency brought openly gay appointments, the first White House gay liaison (who was straight), pride day proclamations and favorable speeches, but it also brought "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act. Bush's presidency brought the first (two) openly gay national AIDS directors at the White House, a historic global program to fight HIV/AIDS, the first federal anti-gay hate crimes prosecution case (which was later dropped for lack of evidence), as well as its own smaller list of gay appointees. But Bush's presidency also launched the Federal Marriage Amendment to the top of the agenda, creating a cataclysmic split with gay Republicans and setting off an ugly campaign of "outing" closeted gays that (so far has) ended the political careers of two Members of Congress and soon a U.S. Senator. Both presidents also lost majorities in Congress they enjoyed early in their terms.
So what might the current economic crisis do for gays? Follow the jump for more…
The early signs are mixed:
- The machine candidates of both parties -- Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney -- appear beholden only to their naked desire to hold power, and both have gladly toyed with and tortured the gay community in the past for their own personal ends. Expect them to say anything, and trust nothing they say.
- The one expressly anti-gay candidate on the Republican side, Mike Huckabee, appears ready to run out of steam, while the first Republican with a solid pro-gay record in office to at any time hold the "front-runner" label -- Rudy Giuliani -- is beginning to hedge his stands.
- John McCain is stylistically with us (which, along with Giuliani's record, drives the anti-gay far right inside the GOP nuts) but may not budge in opposing some key pro-gay legislation.
- Barack Obama is right on nearly all the gay issues, but is making clear pitches to the center and even to the Republicans in an effort to build an inspirational campaign around national unity from the start. He is exciting, but it remains to be seen if he is bold when it comes to policy.
Should the economy suddenly grab all the oxygen on the campaign trail, it's unclear what the picture will begin to look like. Will Giuliani grab the spotlight with an economic message that gives him the same room that Bill Clinton had in 1992, but to keep faith with his gay rights record as mayor of New York? Will Romney do as he did in Michigan and position himself successfully as the candidate on the side of the worried little guy, and in turn give himself political room to wreak harm on us in office? Will Hillary Clinton become so terrified of offending a panicky middle class and show her true opinion of gays by ordering them into the basement until November? Will Obama fail to produce an economic plan that wins confidence, leaving his dazzling charisma and calls for unity and tolerance in the dust?
Clearly, the answer to whether the crisis is good or bad for gay rights is simple. Whoever captures the nation's trust on handling the economy will decide.
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