Earlier this week, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton got flak from gay rights groups for their initial responses to General Pace’s comments that homosexuality is “immoral.” While Clinton said that it was for “others to conclude,” when asked whether he believes homosexuality is immoral, Obama replied “I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That’s probably a good tradition to follow.” When the question was repeated, he said “I think the question here is whether somebody is willing to sacrifice for their country, should they be able to if they’re doing all the things that should be done.”
Pace’s comments provided an excellent opportunity for a presidential hopeful trying to court the gay vote to strongly denounce the general’s statement and emerge as a clear voice for gay rights. The Obama and Clinton campaigns both issued statements several days later saying more specifically that their candidates do not agree with the general. But to many, this was too little, too late. Gay rights activists clearly expected a more straightforward rejection of Pace’s remarks. John Aravosis, of Americablog, said: “What the hell is up with Obama? This is the first major flub I’ve seen from Obama in this campaign, and it’s a doozy. Some of the shine just got knocked off that golden boy.”
Is he right?
To court the support of gay rights activists, 2008 presidential candidates will have to supplement their official claims with signs of genuine support. Offhand responses to reporters might not seem important in the big picture, but they can reveal the depth of a candidate’s commitment to his or her own rhetoric.
But does an endorsement from activists translate into real votes from a base of supporters? Does the “gay vote” exist? In the 2008 democratic primary, the answer could easily be “yes.” Many people who support gay rights also hold similarly strong liberal views about other issues, such as Iraq, social welfare issues, civil rights, etc. Clinton, Obama’s most viable contender, has been criticized as weak on these issues, chiefly due to her pro-war stance. Liberal voters are looking for someone to vote for, and have been quick to put their support into Obama, whose lofty rhetoric has captured the hearts of many. To keep the support of these voters, Obama must be specific when expressing his views.
Some have questioned whether working to garner the favor of the gay community would jeopardize Obama’s support from church-going, socially conservative African-American voters. This claim may have a grain of truth to it, but such conflicts seem inevitable. Obama’s speeches employ rhetoric that appeals to many, but on specific issues, he cannot be all things to all people. The way I see it, the best thing for him to do is to clearly articulate his reasoning behind his positions and to stick to them as steadfastly as possible.
After the midterm elections, analysts were surprised to see that in areas with gay marriage amendments on the ballot, young liberal voters turned up in droves to vote for whoever supported gay rights. There’s no reason this can’t happen again in 2008. But first, we would need someone to stand up and emerge as a leader. Obama has the language of hope down to an art. Now all he needs to do is speak to the hope many of us already hold dear – a society free of homophobia and discrimination. We’ll be listening, Senator.