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    February 13, 2008

    Will he or won't he?

    Posted by: Kevin

    Mccainn_2We are at a stage in the Republican nomination process where symbolism, code language, and posturing matter more than almost anything else.  It's a tentative, tension-filled moment where the various constituencies in the GOP begin biting and angling for place and dominance as the ranks begin to consolidate behind a presumptive nominee.

    With any run-of-the-mill GOP nominee-in-waiting, there would be a whole lot of calculated hugging, genuflecting, back-slapping in order to "unite the party".  It can sometimes lead to craven promises, nearly always to the religious right, which morally stain the Republican Party's march forward in the eyes of the rest of us.  The question now remains - with a candidate as unusual as John McCain, who is openly reviled by the core religious right and its fanatical amen-corners on talk radio, and the pressure of an almost suicide-mission campaign from the right by Mike Huckabee in state after state, will John McCain kneel down, too?

    It's usually been a kind of an awful display of politics over principle, one which anyone who seeks a power base of any size in the GOP must angle toward participating in.  It's often said that Republicans are from Mars, and Democrats are from Venus - and when it comes to inter-party politics, that's definitely the case.  The push-pull of this moment in the GOP campaign is classic, and everyone who wants to be a player has to, well, play.

    As a GOP organization, Log Cabin Republicans did so in 1996 and 2000 - two election campaigns in which I played a senior staff role.  The group made a public decision from the outset in both cases to create leverage by positioning itself from the beginning to have some eventual say at this same tentative moment of "party unity" - not to mention a possible role in an eventual administration. 

    With Bob Dole in 1996, we were breaking new ground.  And it was quite an adventure from start (a returned campaign check and the resulting international media furor) to finish (a request for our endorsement, a convention free of anti-gay rhetoric, a pledge to maintain non-discrimination policies in federal employment). 

    In 2000, we were courted by the McCain campaign, which had several openly gay Republicans in its leadership doing the wooing along with the candidate himself, and while we took actions to remind Karl Rove that his political dalliances with anti-gay groups who demanded all sorts of promises would not be overlooked by us, and there would be pain inflicted on the Bush campaign if it even whispered anti-gay rhetoric on the stump. 

    McCain's early trouncing of Bush in some primaries opened up that leverage, and we smacked Bush with negative radio ads ahead of the 2000 Super Tuesday to hit back for his behavior in South Carolina.  The result was to force Bush to hold the first-ever meeting with a group of openly-gay Republicans -- albeit ones that Karl Rove chose in order to snub LCR's leadership.  But that didn't matter.  We got our leverage, and we used it.  Other 'firsts' resulted -- the first openly-gay national AIDS director, the first federal prosecution of an anti-gay murder as a hate crime, and the first real global AIDS initiative.  Small potatoes for some, sure.  But progress for the GOP circa 2001-2002.  It was enough to infuriate leading religious right organizations, who in 2001 launched an effort to "expose" the "gay Republican agenda" at work inside the Bush White House (and I was named personally as a conspirator in some reports).

    The point of recalling all this is not to extol the virtues of Bob Dole or George W. Bush by any means; far from it.  It's a very different world in 2008, and as it should be, the bar is far higher for both parties than it was then.  But it's to point out how leverage is the name of the game in politics, and how power is gained or lost inside the GOP through leverage.  And why this is a very tense moment for gay observers of the McCain campaign, because of the leverage trying to be exerted on him now by some of the gay community's biggest enemies in politics.  Will he be different?  Will he fight off the religious right kitchen-sink that is currently flying at his head?

    Chris asked very understandably for someone to explain what the attraction is for John McCain among some gays.  It's not easy to explain in sound bites.  McCain does represent a milestone in the journey that gays have made with the Republican Party, either on the inside or on the outside.  Because he will be the nominee, we will have a presidential contest in which neither candidate supports the Federal Marriage Amendment.  True, neither will support gay marriage; indeed both will have been on record opposing it.  But we should all agree that this is still progress.

    If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she will carry with her some nice rhetoric and very little substance on gay issues.  Obama is a very new product, and the radioactive wattage of his rhetoric is all we really have on him.  McCain has a long record, and it contains both legislative and political memories of all types. 

    He stood with gay Republicans against the ugly tactics in South Carolina in 2000 and the early pandering by the 2000 Bush campaign to anti-gay groups.  He voted against the FMA in the Senate, and spoke against it on the Senate floor, but he also voted for DOMA, against ENDA, supports "don't ask, don't tell" and backed the Arizona anti-gay marriage referendum (but so did John Kerry back such a measure in 2004).   

    He led the fight with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-OR) in 1996 to repeal the repulsive Dornan Amendment, which sought to create witchhunts to drive soldiers out of the military who tested HIV positive after enlistment and cut off all their benefits.  I remember meeting with him that year in the Senate and seeing the blood in his eyes over how unfair it was as he laid out their strategy for getting the votes to repeal it.  And when I raised "don't ask, don't tell" in the same conversation, and again when it was raised in our meeting with him as a presidential candidate in 2000, he had the same political (almost Hillaryesque) answer: "When General Colin Powell says it's time to repeal it, we can do it."   

    Conviction, politics, bravery, skittishness -- all rolled up in one.  It was good from a conservative Republican in 1996 and 2000; it's frustrating today coming from anyone wanting to be President, even if it's an improvement over the last guy who ran.

    He would certainly appoint openly gay people in a McCain Administration, and probably in some senior positions should the right people come along.  I have no doubt about that.  And he would get his back up and defend them against even a whisper of anger from the (shrinking) GOP minority in the Congress over their qualifications.  But I don't know if he'll ever be with us on ENDA.  I'd like to think he will be.  But that's not enough for most people to make a decision in November, if that's their big issue. 

    He'll never be with us on marriage, though.  There aren't enough years left in life for that kind of conversion, I'm afraid, as much as I like him personally.  At least he'll never lie to us in the face about it, like many Democrats.  But how good is that a reason to vote for him?  I guess it depends on his opponent, who will also oppose gay marriage.  Here's where it gets muddy, yet again.

    So, in that melange of answers and ruminations, you see where McCain fits into the bigger picture for some gays.  And you also see how tenuous this moment is for those who hope he will continue to be "different", albeit imperfect, in terms of Republican nominees.  He already went to Liberty University a long time ago, and much like he did at CPAC last week, he didn't give them anything other than very polite attention and a restatement that he is who he is, take him or leave him. 

    If McCain faces down the pressure of Huckabee's challenge and the ravings of the talk radio set, and refuses to kneel in any way to that pressure, then we shift our focus to the GOP convention in St. Paul and beyond, and begin to wonder what a Clinton or Obama challenge would bring out in John McCain next fall.  And if he wins the presidency, whether we voted for him or not, what will it mean for the Republican Party that a tough man stood up to our community's biggest political enemies, told them to go to hell, won the nomination, led the party to victory and never regretted it for a moment? It could finally embolden gay rights supporters in the GOP to get off their asses, come out of hiding (and the closet) and do the right thing in abundance once and for all.

    For many of us who look at the U.S. political spectrum far beyond the meetings of a few gay Democratic clubs in a handful of major cities, it would be a gigantic step forward for the United States.  And there would be a duty for Log Cabin Republicans to build leverage over the McCain Administration and to use it for the right ends -- legislative and policy outcomes that we want as a community, and progress that we can measure and hold up to the next president and the next.

    If you don't get it, well, sorry.  That's just the way it is on Mars.



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    1. Lucrece on Feb 13, 2008 10:04:27 PM:

      I don't see any reference to one big issue: Upcoming Supreme Court nominations as further justices retire/die.

      While Hillary may oppose marriage, like McCain does, would you argue that judicial appointments by a Republican would be as beneficial to our movement as a Democrat's appointment?

    1. Kevin on Feb 13, 2008 11:06:30 PM:

      Lucrece: I wouldn't argue anything. I'm not advocating a Republican victory here. I'm merely trying to explain the complex thoughts and feelings that some gays have toward the GOP race.

      But I would add that a lot of gays think the Supreme Court argument is a "gotcha" play by gay Dems and ultimately not a strong reason for knee-jerk voting because there is a wide range of views on what constitutes the "right" kind of justice. Was O'Connor evil? Is Kennedy? Is Souter? With Bowers v Hardwick now overturned, and Amendment 2 of Colorado as well, what is the grand pressing cause before the Court now - something average people, not law-geeks, can get worked up about that overrides everything else?

      It's not a cop out - it's a real segment of feeling among some gay people. Read a wide range of blogs and you'll see the spectrum of views - I have yet to see anyone raise that as a gigantic issue. Also, for some people -gay or not- Supreme Court appointments is not the one and only issue they will vote on.

      That's why it didn't register for me in this post.

    1. Tim C on Feb 14, 2008 9:33:50 AM:

      I, like many gay friends I have talked with, are conflicted about McCain. Yes, I would love to hear him say something positive about ENDA or DOMA or DADT. I have read that people who know him say he really hasn't given those issues much thought -- they just aren't on his radar screen. A lot of issues are -- those just aren't. He doesn't consider them urgent issues. That disappoints me. On the other hand, and this sounds so old fashioned, John McCain is an honorable man. You get this feeling from watching him, listening to him and studying his history, that in the end, he'll to the right thing. And he'll do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. IMO, it's been a long time since we've had an honorable man in the White House, and a lot of other people feel that. The last two occupants of the Oval Office did much to sully it. The Presidency should be held in better regard.

      Some pundits have written that one of the reasons that Edward Kennedy endorsed Obama is how Bill Clinton treated the office. Say what you like about Ted Kennedy, they said, but he takes the Office of the President and the governance of the U.S. very seriously, and Clinton offended him. And then we have the current occupant. Now there is a candidate who appears that he may just love his country more than himself, especially given what he endured for it, and how he has conducted himself since, and that's very attractive to a lot of prospective voters.

    1. Kevin on Feb 14, 2008 11:24:25 AM:

      Tim: Nice to hear from you again (if you remember me!). And I can appreciate the turmoil. But for me, unlike previous years, trying to divine what he will do or say on gay issues just isn't enough. Maybe I'm getting older (but wiser? who knows--)...

      David Frum was on CNN last night and touched on something I've felt for almost two years now, watching this election coming and seeing the larger trends in the country. He said this election is shaping up to be a lot like 1980 in how it has the potential to be transformative. Reagan swept in and, if you read history, he wasn't altogether embraced. He really only won the election in the final few weeks, and then his first two years in office saw his approval ratings fall into the basement. But you can't doubt that his arrival, and the men and women who swept into Washington and state capitals with him, was part of a larger wave of change that the country was clearly starving for in 1980.

      Frum is right. This year has that feel about it. I thought 2 years ago that Hillary would be the new Reagan, but for the Democrats. She had everything he had back then. But she has flopped miserably as a transformative figure. She's appearing more and more like the embodiment of yesterday. Obama, on the other hand, has tapped into that public hunger so effectively that many of us who are dazzled by him keep forgetting how much we disagree with many of his positions.

      And McCain - well, in the midst of all this, I think he really has to prove that he is the better transformative choice. That means he has to be BOLD, not craven and typical. He has to show those maverick streaks and really surprise us, while at the same time making us feel confident in his experience, competence and strength as a leader.

      I am hoping he will make the effort and reach for that gold ring. And I think gay issues are part of it, not just cuz I'm gay but because they have been the mark of the beast on the GOP for too long, and should be transformed.

    1. Wes on Feb 14, 2008 3:22:13 PM:

      O'Conner, Souter, and Kennedy were 'accidental moderates'. And they are not recent appointees from the era in which the rapid nuts of the Republican party have had a grip on the nominees and know to vet the nominees better. Try Roberts and Alito for a more accurate picture of what Republican nominees are likely to mirror. Thomas, Alito, Scalia and Roberts will likely be alive for many years into the future as will nominees the next president is likely to put forth. It is short sighted to ignore the relevance of the Supreme Ct. At some point, gay people will have issues before the Supreme Ct that are vital to our interests. And who will join Thomas, Alito, Scalia and Roberts in the vote on them? That is the question.

      As to McCain, gay people will be hard pressed to find a reason to vote for him because of his potential on possible gay rights advances. Is he going to put forth something on gay partner immigration-citizenship? Is he going to want to repeal DADT? DOMA? Will he oppose an anti-gay marriage amendment to Arizona's constitution when it is put back on the ballot? Will he support benefit for partners of federal employees? Answers: No. No. No. No. No.

      Maybe he will appoint a couple of under secretaries to the "I don't care Department" in charge of gay issues.

      At one time I had some respect for McCain. I think it ended about the time he dragged himself onto the stage at Liberty U. This proved to me he would sell his soul to the devil to get what he wants.

      There are those (like my 92 year old half senile father) who are for "John" because he is solid on defense. Really? Is it being 'solid on defense' to spend half a trillion dollars on a war we did not have to fight? Where do you think the money came from that we used to fight this war? Did this make our country stronger devaluing our currency and increasing our debt?

      And do not mistake me for a Democrat flag waver,either. I am a soul that is lost at sea with no real candidate to love. I am a fiscal conservative and social liberal.

    1. DCposter on Feb 16, 2008 11:08:31 AM:

      This is well-written, Kevin. And honest as far as it goes. But then you do at times slip into the hackneyed defensive position of a lot of gay GOP activists--"sure my guy's bad, but your guy doesn't support gay marriage." C'mon, there's bright, blinding daylight between McCain and Obama on LGBT issues. McCain is on record against even civil unions. Obama wants federal recognition of them. I remember the hearings on DADT, and McCain was an active and outspoken opponent of allowing gays to serve in the armed forces. Moderate Republicans support ENDA. McCain does not.

      I respect gay Republicans who say they aren't voting on LGBT issues alone. That's fine. But don't defend a GOP candidate like McCain by claiming, even by suggestion, that his positions on our issues are a wash. They aren't.

    1. Kevin on Feb 16, 2008 6:23:00 PM:

      DCPoster - I wasn't aware I was defending anyone.

    1. InXanadu2 on Feb 22, 2008 4:28:35 AM:

      It should be Extremely disturbing to everyone watching this election how much McCain now seems to be stressing how Conservative he is--even after he's locked up the nomination!! He even got into an "I'm more anti-gay than you are" spat with Mitt Romney just before he dropped out.

      The fact that he is speaking this way at time he should be trying to court moderates away from Obama is an ominous sign that he could even be an even worse wolf-in-compassionate-conservatives-clothing than Bush turned out to be. And that's pretty bad. He already supports Don't Ask Don't Tell--that constitutional marriage amendment cannot be far behind--especially if he chooses a running mate who favors one.

      He's turning more to the Right as we speak--and I shudder to think who he'll choose as that running mate. We could be looking at another Quayle (maybe Elizabeth Dole--who scores a perfect zero on gay rights issues).

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