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    January 05, 2007

    Edwards can't cross marriage 'bridge'

    Posted by: Chris

    Johnedwards I am of two minds about John Edwards' recent inability to explain his position on gay marriage.  At the former North Carolina senator's very first New Hampshire town hall meeting after announcing another run for the White House, he got hit with the question from a gay man from Boston:

    QUESTION: Given that there's so much dissension in the country about gay marriage, what is your view, or what would you tell your gay supporters in the country what your view is on -- not gay marriage in a religious sense, but gay marriage as a civil right and as being able to get a civil license to marry your same sex partner?

    EDWARDS: Single hardest social issue for me, personally — and there are lots of them — but most of the others, I don't have a lot of personal struggle with. I have a lot of personal struggle with this one. … Because the issue is, from my perspective, I think it is right and fair and just in America that men and women who want to live with their partner should be treated with dignity and respect and should have civil rights, as you refer to them. And the question becomes, 'Can you accomplish that through civil unions or partnership recognition and support of partnership benefits? Does that provide the level of dignity and respect that gay Americans are entitled to? Or do you have to cross the bridge into the issue of gay marriage?' I personally feel great conflict about that. I don't know the answer. Wish I did.

    Given Edwards' slick, focus-group-tested responses to most other policy issues, the public stammering surprised me. Especially at the presidential level, candidates usually get away with rhetorical murder on gay issues because the focus changes so quickly. Using warm and fuzzy words can convey opposition to discrimination, even when the actual position isn't.

    George W. Bush mastered the art in 2000, talking in terms of tolerance while opposing every basic gay rights initiative.  John McCain is already using the same playbook.

    Democrats play the game pretty well also. In 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry portrayed himself as a champion for gay rights even as he not only opposed gay marriage but even backed a constitutional amendment to overturn the court decision in his home state that resulted in this country's first officially married gay couples.

    Edwards, his running mate, did little better. At a Democratic primary debate in '04, Edwards said he admired Kerry's 1996 vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. On national television days later, Edwards spoke approvingly of the same law. Later, Edwards split the baby, saying he would have voted against DOMA because it deprived federal recognition from gay married couples, but he backed the provision in DOMA that lets one state ignore marriage licenses issued to gay couples in another.  Does that mean he would have voted for it, after he voted against it?

    Back in 2004, Edwards refused to take a position on civil unions, saying the issue should be left to the states. At the Dec. 29 appearance in Portsmouth, he showed that in a few years, he's taken a few steps across the gay marriage bridge, even if he's not ready to cross:

    It's very easy for me to say, 'Civil unions? Yes. Partnership benefits? Yes. Obviously all the other anti-discrimination stuff? Yes.' It's a jump for me to get to gay marriage, and I haven't yet gotten across that bridge. But it is something I struggle with, and that's just the truth.

    Among the "anti-discrimination stuff," Edwards probably includes repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," even though he largely dodged the issue last time around. When pressed by a 2003 National Gay & Lesbian Task Force survey, he said "the current policy does not serve our national interests and needs to be changed … so that it treats people fairly and protects our society."  Again, nice language, but not a clear-cut yes for DADT repeal.

    Not surprisingly given these semantic catwalks, Edwards was one of two Democratic presidential candidates to skip a 2003 debate sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign that focused solely on gay issues. (Edwards still managed to ingratiate himself to the group by headlining HRC's Atlanta black-tie dinner.)

    Still, there is a side of Edwards that looks quite prepared to demagogue, including on gay issues. In June 2000, when he was more worried about his North Carolina constituents, Edwards actually voted for an amendment by anti-gay Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah that would have stripped "sexual orientation" from the federal hate crimes bill. Three years later, when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he co-sponsored a gay-inclusive hate crimes bill. 

    Later that year, Howard Dean was leading the primary pack and famously suggested that Democrats should not allow themselves to get tripped up in the South by "God, guns and gays," as they had in the past. Edwards pounced, saying in a speech, "Some in my party want to duck the values debate. They want to say to America, 'We're  not interested in your values; we want to change the subject to anything else.' That's wrong," he added. 

    Edwards hinted that those Southern "values" remain the primary stumbling block for him on gay marriage. In an appearance last week on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos asked  Edwards why gay marriage is so hard for him.

    Elizabethedwards "Because I’m 53 years old, and I grew up in a small town in the rural South," replied Edwards. "I was raised in a the Southern Baptist church, and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It’s part of who I am. I can’t make it disappear. … I’m just not there yet." The same can't be said for Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife, who said on the same program that she "comes from a more eclectic background," so the issue is "less problematic" for her.

    I can't help but believe that there's really less light between the Edwards than he lets on. It's hard to believe Edwards really struggles with his Southern Baptist beliefs given his vocal pro-choice position on abortion. Why isn't that equally hard?

    I began by saying I was of two minds about Edwards' position on gay marriage. Here's what I can't decide. I can't tell whether for him, like for so many others, gay marriage presents a conflict between what he knows is right and what is politically feasible. 

    Or maybe, in the alternative, Edwards struggles so much with the issue because it cuts in so many difficult ways politically — not just between liberal primary voters and centrist general election voters, but between pro-gay early primary states (New Hampshire and Iowa) and newly emergent South Carolina. Playing the ever-important expectations game, favorite son Edwards can't afford to do anything other than spectacular in neighboring South Carolina in such an early contest, but voters there could be turned off by talk in support of gay marriage in places like New Hampshire.

    Either way, all the babbling rhetoric leaves me grumbling, "Where's the beef?" — his actual policy positions. It's time gay voters and lobbying groups decide in concrete terms what we can reasonably expect from those seeking money, support and votes from gays and our allies.



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    1. Alan on Jan 5, 2007 10:06:30 PM:

      I think your gut reaction comes from your well-placed cynicism about politicians. That notwithstanding, John Edwards' position reflects that of an overwhelming number of non-politician Americans, even if his "real" opinion is probably a lot closer to that of his wife.

      Considering that less than a decade ago same-sex marriage wasn't even a blip on the social radar, the issue has done tremendous good in changing the terms of the general debate over gay rights and has helped to un-demonize homosexuals for the mass of fair-minded Americans whose views on the subject of homosexuality have profoundly moved in a positive direction in a relatively short time span.

      Yet though polls show that equal rights under the law and equal rights within the context of civil union or domestic partnership now have the majority of mainstream support, the ballot box shows us that a large percentage of Americans are still not ready to follow us across that bridge to marriage.

      At least Mr. Edwards (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I voted for in the 2004 Florida primary) while admitting to difficulty crossing the bridge has not come out and said "No, I won't go." Maybe this is analgous to the first time bottoming for some gay men. Ultimately almost all of them get there.

      I know you are young and in both love and a hurry and dislike older guys like me (and I'm not that much older than you) who have seen so much change in our lifetimes and are more willing to look to the end when the skirmishes and battles are over and the war is won, once and for all.

      Then, like the final scene in Longtime Companion, we'll all gather on Copacabana Beach to celebrate both your wedding and victory (though I hope us older guys will be wise enough to leave our Speedos home.)

    1. Andoni on Jan 7, 2007 10:03:50 AM:

      I’m fairly certain Edwards is experiencing a conflict between what he knows is right and what is politically possible at this time in our history.

      I also think Mr. and Mrs. Edwards are trying to play both sides of the fence on this politically explosive issue. But that’s OK with me for this one issue. I agree with Chris that there really isn’t a whole lot of daylight between John and Elizabeth’s positions ---- they are very close to each other, but on different sides of the fence.

      When John Edwards says, “I’m not there yet,” I believe that even though he is saying he doesn’t support gay marriage, he is also implying to those that listen carefully that he will eventually get there.

      During the 2004 Georgia primaries when Edwards was running for president, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Mrs. Edwards and a small group of LGBT activists in the living room of a friend. She was pressed very hard on gay marriage and she held her ground ….. federal civil unions yes, marriage no. It was clear from our overall discussion that she saw eye to eye with us on every other gay issue, but would not cross the bridge on marriage.

      When several of us got a bit angry, she responded with: I’ll give it to you straight even though you may not like the answer. We think gays should be equal in every conceivable manner in this country, but we are not going to publicly back marriage because it would be political suicide to that. The country’s not ready yet and if we backed gay marriage, people would stop listening to everything else John is saying and focus solely on that one issue.

      Although this stance doesn’t please me, I can understand it. In my dream world, I want someone to back gay marriage and win the presidency, instead of going down in flames over the issue. We may be close to that time, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.

      If only the Republicans can nominate a Giuliani or Bloomberg, then this issue gets immediately defused.

    1. Alan on Jan 7, 2007 1:36:15 PM:

      "If only the Republicans can nominate a Giuliani or Bloomberg, then this issue gets immediately defused."

      Sadly Andoni until the issue is defused, the Republicans could never nominate a Giuliani or Bloomberg, just as my Democrats will never nominate a Kucinich or Feingold.

    1. Richard on Jul 16, 2010 4:46:37 AM:

      Though I would’ve loved it much more if you added a relevant video or at least pictures to back up the explanation, I still thought that your write-up quite helpful. It’s usually hard to make a complicated matter seem very easy. I enjoy your web log

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