The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Obama’s Gay Pass

Based on what I’ve been reading as the primaries lay out, there’s a struggle going on in the Democratic party. Actually, more than one. At least two. One is obvious to be discussed in the media; the candidates’ battle to win over core constituencies of the Democratic base. Namely, African Americans, Latinos, and women.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were pitched yesterday into a struggle for the key components of the Democratic power base – women, African-American and Latino voters – as the race for the White House fans out across a national stage.

…While Obama had overwhelming support from African-American voters, Clinton was strongly backed by women and Latinos. She was also the preferred candidate of voters who see the economy as the main issue in the coming elections – a distinct plus amid deepening concerns about recession.

Although he is at a disadvantage generally against the Clinton machine and has lost much of the momentum that followed his Iowa victory, Obama enters the South Carolina contest with key strengths. He has led the polls in the South Carolina since mid-December and demonstrated overwhelming support from African-American voters in Nevada.

Entrance polls from the caucus suggested he won more than 80% support among African-Americans. That extended to African-American women as well, a good augury for Obama in South Carolina because of typically high turnout in that demographic group.

Otherwise, Clinton performed strongly among women in Nevada, who made up 60% of the electorate.

She also enjoys far greater support among Latino voters, who will be an important factor in California, Arizona and other states which hold their primary elections on February 5.

That’s because conventional wisdom is that any winning coalition for a Democratic candidate must have strong support from those groups. And that’s probably right. The percentage of African American voters who go Democratic is usually somewhere in the 80s or 90s. Women also tend to vote Democratic in numbers, and high turnout of women voters—especially single women— tends to be good for Democrats. So, there are organized efforts to encourage single women to vote, because winning that vote is crucial for any Democratic victory. Latino voters are important to Democrats, too, and the Republicans’ take on immigration may have opened up more of the Latino vote to Democrats.

Whither gay voters in all of this? Certainly Democrats are doing more than they ever have before to win over the gay vote. Or saying more, at least. Just about every Democratic campaign has publicized endorsements from prominent LGBT leaders.

But the struggle for that constituency is more subtle. The dance is more nuanced, and most of the remaining front runners in the Democratic field have missed a step or two. The difference, is that the positions the candidates take, and the response of gay supporters to those positions indicates where we stand in relation to other constituencies.

And the reality is that where it’s necessary for Democrats to appeal to other constituencies that may not support LGBT equality, we are expected to stand aside, and give the candidate a pass. Case in point, Barrack Obama. With the McClurkin debacle still fresh in some memories, Obama received an endorsement from a black conservative minister, whose church had been associated with an “ex-gay” ministry until it disappeared from the church’s website.

What’s interesting is that some gays, and some heterosexual supporters of equality are willing to give Obama a pass on taking a stand on gay issues when it means winning over strongly Democratic constituencies that also happen to be homophobic or anti-gay.

Over at Americablog, John details the whole story and then relates that he talked to the Obama campaign and then does some amazing hairsplitting in order to give Obama a pass.

The reason the McClurkin controversy really got my goat wasn’t that Obama had scheduled a homophobic superstar to emcee a campaign event. (I doubt Obama knew about McClurkin’s dark side when the event was scheduled.) What bothered me was that even after Obama learned that McClurkin was a real jerk he still kept him on the schedule (and surprise, surprise, McClurkin then spent half an hour at the event railing against gays). From what we know, Caldwell isn’t McClurkin – Caldwell may embrace the “ex-gays,” but he’s not an ex-gay leader like McClurkin (though I’m not going to give the guy any PFLAG awards). But more importantly, Caldwell doesn’t appear to have any role at all in the Obama campaign, nor will he (though he did appear previously at a few Obama events). If that’s true, and coming on the heels of Obama’s rather gutsy pro-gay comments at MLK’s church yesterday morning, I’m a lot less troubled by this controversy than I was the previous.

Bottom line: Obama gets some some major chits for what he did yesterday morning, and with that in mind, I think on this one we can give him a pass.
UPDATE: A reader emailed me this link, noting that Caldwell was invited by Obama’s campaign to appear at the McClurkin fundraiser. I knew that already, and the campaign didn’t lie to me about it – in fact they acknowledged that he was there. But, the issue isn’t what the campaign did before they knew he was a problem, the issue is what they do now. If they say he’s not going to be asked to do anything for the campaign, until proven otherwise, that’s a darn good answer.

And at Open Left, Matt Stoller—who, based on what I know of him and have read of his blogging is a supporter of gay & lesbian equality—wrote a briefer post about it, but closed with something that basically states the bargain being made here.

… I’m sympathetic to politicians who need to deal with homophobic pastors. This isn’t exactly like McLurkin, since Caldwell is a community leader and it makes sense to speak with all communities if you are running for President. It is illustrative of a number of structural problems we will and are dealing with, including a very conservative set of religious establishment figures.

I’m not sure what the other structural problems are, or what makes this a “structural problem”—unless it’s a question of who plays what role on the campaign. What it indicates to me, at least, is that if building a winning coalition for a Democratic candidate means reaching out to constituencies who are either historically and vehemently homophobic (as with some African American voters), or moderates and progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, who would rather just not talk about gay equality, then the party and the candidates will be given a pass, even by gay constituents and our supporters.

If winning means getting the support of Donnie McClurkin’s fan base, then so be it. It remains to be seen whether the effort to distinguish the candidate and his positions from his supporters and their positions, but it’s almost certain that if the candidate wants to keep his supporters either his position will be their positions or at the very least not conflict with their positions.

The implication is that somewhere down the road, though we may say “It’s always the right time do the right thing,” it isn’t and may not be the case if enough potential voters would rather you didn’t. Like I said before, that changes a party.

And if you look at it that way, it’s pretty clear Democratic leadership is following the example of the folks they’re trying to court now. From a practical point of view, I guess I understand it. There are more of them than there are gay people or gay families, and we’re not likely to be able to hand anyone an election. So, priorities.

But you don’t have to look much further than the Republican to find out what happens when a political party gets in bed with evangelicals. You come out of it a different party, with different priorities, and a powerful new constituency that you’ll probably have to keep satisfied if you want to stay in power.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about anyway. Getting power. Keeping power. Period.

The difference is that, by and large, gay constituents will accept it. Oh we’ll bitch a little, but we’ll fall in line when the time comes to write checks for campaign contributions and to cast our votes. Some of us will passionately support some candidates. What other constituency would do that? Would African American voters support a candidate who supported “separate but equal” or courted voters who supported it? Would women voters support a candidate who opposed women’s equality or courted voters who did?

When you break things down around issues, some constituencies are considered “single-issue groups,” and the conventional wisdom seems to be that getting Democrats elected is more important than any single issue or any single group. And, in that sense, some constituencies—deemed more able to deliver the numbers needed to win power—become more important than others, as do some issues, and must therefore take a back seat.

And when it comes to gays, where else are we gonna go?

Stephen Miller at the Independent Gay Forum linked to a Washington Blade Editorial that sums it up pretty well.

[I]t serves as a reminder of what happens when one party knows it can count on the support of a constituency group, no matter what. We have seen this problem manifest before. When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who once publicly supported gay marriage, changed his position and invoked the Catholic sacraments following that state’s high court ruling upholding a gay ban, our national advocacy groups were silent. It’s a safe bet that if O’Malley were a Republican, the indignant press releases would have been flying and rallies would have been scheduled for Annapolis.

When Democrats like John Kerry and 2004 running mate John Edwards announce support for anti-gay state marriage amendments and gays line up dutifully behind them anyway, we teach the party that there are no repercussions for betraying us.

This doesn’t mean gay voters should pull the lever for any of the Republicans now in the running. Rather, gay voters, donors and campaign staffers need to learn the art of the barter system: you give something, you get something. No one knows that concept better than the evangelical Christians.

And Miller puts it even more succinctly.

“Free gay votes and dollars for Dems; nothing required” has for too long been the operating principle of major national (and some state) LGBT organizations.

After all, you’ll get a pass and still get gay votes.

The question is, what are we getting?

One Comment

  1. With California lifting the ban on gay marriage, I am very interested in your opionion as to whether or not the right for gays to marry is a fight that should be part of the African-American agenda. Please feel free to comment at: http://sojournersplace.blogspot.com/2008/06/is-gay-marriage-right-fight-for-african.html

    Much Obliged, SjP

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