BY James Kirchick
January 11 2010 10:00 AM ET
Gay voters’ frustration with the Democratic Party in general, and Obama in particular, is one piece of a larger narrative of progressive disenchantment with the first year of the new administration. Members of the president’s liberal base have experienced a rude awakening: They are not as powerful as they thought they were. Despite all their efforts, Congress failed to pass a health care package with a public option, and the president has chosen to escalate the war in Afghanistan with a surge of 30,000 additional troops, two stances sharply at odds with the views of his base. Seen in this context, the Democratic Party’s lackadaisical approach to gay rights isn’t that remarkable.
But this view holds only if one considers gay rights to be a “liberal” issue. And that is where the gay rights movement may be making a major strategic mistake. It’s widely acknowledged that two of the most successful lobbies in Washington are the National Rifle Association, which advocates for the loosening of gun laws, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which encourages a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. These organizations have members across the country and are feared and respected on Capitol Hill for the sway they have over Congress.
The most salient feature of both the NRA and AIPAC is that they are bipartisan lobbies (while the NRA is commonly associated with the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally, many of its rank-and-file members and supporters in Congress are Democrats, including some of the red-state congressmen elected in the Democratic wave of 2006). Advocates of gun rights and Israel have been successful in persuading appreciable numbers of Democrats and Republicans that their causes are in the national interest and that by supporting them, politicians will help ensure, not jeopardize, their electoral success. After many years of relentless campaigning, the NRA has, for the most part, been successful in keeping Congress from legislating on guns. And AIPAC can rely on the signatures of most congressmen whenever a resolution is introduced that expresses support for Israel.
It will be far more difficult for gays to achieve the same sort of bipartisan consensus. The issue of guns is largely a geographical one that cuts across party lines: Rural voters, whether in liberal Minnesota or conservative Mississippi, are likely to have similar views about the right to bear arms, even if they disagree about prayer in schools or tax cuts. In pursuing voters in red districts, the national Democratic Party has wisely stayed quiet on the issue, allowing candidates in conservative areas to express their gun rights sympathies.
Similarly, most Americans instinctively consider themselves to be “pro-Israel,” if for very different reasons. Seventy-eight percent of American Jews, for instance, voted for Obama, yet they share little in common with the evangelical Christians who are just as passionate about the security of the Jewish state. Ultimately, gun rights and Israel hold special places in the American imagination, having to do with basic notions of individual liberty, the Judeo-Christian origins of the United States, and support for democracy abroad.
Where guns and Israel may be popular among a broad swath of the American electorate, however, gay causes haven’t been. It’s only recently—in the last 15 years or so—that gay people haven’t been seen politically as “diseased pariahs,” Aravosis says. It took decades of tireless activism, education, and personal interaction for politicians to even want to be seen in public with gay activists, let alone vote in favor of pro-gay legislation. Remember that in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole publicly returned a check from the Log Cabin Republicans. In 2008, John McCain warmly accepted the gay group’s endorsement.
Yet McCain won his party’s nomination due to vote splitting by a glut of conservative primary opponents; his brand of moderate Republicanism may have died with his general election defeat. As it relentlessly and often mindlessly attacks nearly every aspect of Obama’s agenda, the GOP is hardly in a place to advocate for issues like the repeal of DADT or DOMA (though, to be fair, shrill opposition to gay rights does not seem to be an animating cause of the antitax “tea party” movement that has rapidly gained influence within GOP ranks). In November the Log Cabin Republicans publicly protested a “litmus test” proposed by Republican National Committee members, a stipulation of which would require 2010 congressional candidates to oppose gay marriage. “The RNC should be looking for ways to spread our inclusive message, rather than turning its back on committed, conservative, qualified candidates,” Log Cabin chairman Terry Hamilton says. So the question for gay rights advocates hoping to work within the two-party system is not whether they can mainstream their agenda to the point where it becomes a nonpartisan affair à la gun rights or Israel, but whether either party can be trusted as a vehicle of gay progress.
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