National Commentary

Anything But Straight: The Ugly Phase Begins

For a brief moment, it looked as if the GLBT community might escape gratuitous gay baiting in the 2008 presidential campaign. Unlike the past few election cycles where the strategy was to secure the base at all costs, McCain and Obama were vigorously vying for moderate and Independent swing voters.

The pro-gay Obama was competing in all 50 states – thus tailoring his general election message to the skeptical rather than the converted. McCain, for his part, appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show and pointedly refused to exploit marriage as a wedge issue in California.

The dream scenario playing out was almost too good to be true. If Obama won with a firmly Democratic Congress in place, it would likely lead to the advancement of GLBT issues on Capitol Hill. If McCain emerged as the victor without pandering to the Religious Right, he would be free to pursue a moderate agenda and not be beholden to extremists. It is doubtful that this would lead to any advancement on GLBT equality, but it would set the GOP on a more moderate course and curtail their anti-gay obsession.

The beauty of this situation was that for the first time in memory, GLBT people were not forced to put all of their eggs in one basket and play feast or famine politics. I’m certainly not saying the records of the two men are equivalent. Obama is an all you can eat buffet, compared to McCain, a stingy one-course dish with a soggy side of greens. Still, this would have been a superior situation to a Republican nominee getting elected on the backs of gay and lesbian people.

Unfortunately, McCain made a strategic decision last week that he could not win without securing the party’s right wing base. My guess is that the campaign’s internal polling suggested that Obama – aided by his bloated bank account – was winning too many Independents, so McCain had no choice but to make peace with social conservatives.

Leaders from the Religious Right were reinforcing this reality by making it clear that if McCain did not grovel, they wouldn’t help get out the vote.

“We told him that if he didn’t come out and share his pro-family stances on these issues, then he can kiss Ohio goodbye,” said influential anti-gay Ohio activist Phil Burress, according to the Los Angeles Times.

With his divisive new strategy in place, McCain met with prominent social conservatives in Ohio and all but licked their boots. At the meeting, he announced his support for an initiative in California to ban same-sex marriage. In his speech he said that Californians ought to “recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona. I do not believe judges should be making these decisions.” (Despite McCain’s anti-gay campaigning, the Arizona amendment failed)

McCain’s efforts seemed to work and suggest there is time to rally the right to his side.

“It was obvious there were a lot of changed hearts in the room,” said Burress. “We realized that he’s with us on the majority of the issues we care about.”

McCain also said that he hoped to meet with James Dobson, the virulently anti-gay leader of Focus on the Family. Dobson has said he would not vote for McCain and claimed that neither candidate gives “a hoot about the family.”

To convert a skeptical Dobson, McCain would have to make extraordinary promises and essentially sell his soul. Such a move would signal that McCain has dropped all pretenses of appealing to mainstream Americans and that his campaign has decided to follow the Karl Rove playbook of using red meat to create red states. This incipient strategy is depressing and ends hope of a classy campaign that could have united Americans.

Obama, for his part, is going after religious voters who are dissatisfied with McCain. He met last month with Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, and endorsed a sweeping faith based initiative.

In my view, the faith-based initiative is a nightmare in practice, if not principle. These programs are useless, a waste of taxpayer money and are nothing more than pork barrel prayer and thinly disguised preacher payoffs. The Obama campaign should lose voters over this stunt, but it won’t, as McCain’s flirtation with the fringe no longer leaves him as a viable option.

This past week will be remembered for McCain abandoning his efforts to win GLBT votes, but it will also mark the moment the GLBT community lost much of its leverage over the Obama campaign. The only way Obama could now lose significant GLBT support is by selecting an anti-gay Vice Presidential candidate, such as Sam Nunn.

A presidential race with the religious right on the sidelines was fun while it lasted, but too good to be true. Now, comes the ugly phase of the campaign, where the GOP lies about our lives and our families become fodder to rile up conservatives in an effort to save John McCain’s sluggish campaign.