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Opinion: A
President to Be Proud Of

Opinion: A
President to Be Proud Of


John McCain isn't perfect on gay issues. But New Republic editor Jamie Kirchick thinks gay voters should approach the Arizona senator with an open mind.

Sen. John McCain aggravates more people in Washington than perhaps any other politician. Championing reform for campaign finance and immigration alongside Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy has long made McCain a thorn in the side of conservatives. His steadfast support for the Iraq war alienates liberals who admire McCain for the reasons conservatives despise him. And McCain has disappointed gays.

But while McCain has racked up an unimpressive voting record in Congress -- he supports "don't ask, don't tell" and DOMA, and opposes adding sexual orientation to the federal hate-crimes bill and ENDA -- what distinguishes him from many of his Republican colleagues is that he has also taken some courageous stands.

McCain was one of the very few outspoken Republican opponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment in the Senate, calling the proposed ban "un-Republican." This was a crucial initiative for the religious right, endorsed by President Bush and used as a wedge issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. McCain spent far more political capital in standing against this divisive amendment than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or, for that matter, any Democrat. The Human Rights Campaign praised his "ironclad opposition to undermining the Constitution" and said that "all senators should follow Senator McCain's example."

McCain's opposition to the FMA is emblematic of his tempestuous relationship with the religious right. After the bruising 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, McCain labeled the reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and "corrupting influences on religion and politics." Sure, McCain spoke at Falwell's Liberty University in 2006, but he didn't pander. At the end of the day, McCain loathes the religious right, and the feeling is mutual. A notoriously stubborn man, he will probably not feel the need to appease the antigay wing of his party, especially considering how outspoken its members have been in their denunciation of him. Evangelical leader James Dobson has already said he will not support McCain.

As if to neutralize his outspoken opposition to the FMA -- and to frustrate those gays who might otherwise support him enthusiastically -- McCain backed a proposed 2006 amendment to the Arizona constitution that would have not only prevented gay marriage but denied government benefits to unmarried couples. While McCain's support for this measure is regrettable, ultimately, what a senator or president thinks about a state-level constitutional amendment is less relevant than where he stands on a federal one. Let's not forget that John Kerry, while running for president in 2004, supported a reversal of the 2003 Massachusetts supreme court decision mandating gay marriage, a move that would have stripped civil rights from gays, not merely denied them.

Alongside McCain's mixed political record are frequent instances of his positive attitude toward gay people. During the 2000 Republican presidential primary season, he said that he was "unashamed, unembarrassed, and proud to work with" the Log Cabin Republicans. That same year, when then-Tempe, Ariz., mayor Neil Giuliano revealed his homosexuality to preempt threats to out him, "John was the first to tell the religious right, 'This doesn't make a damned bit of difference,' " Giuliano later told The Boston Globe. And days after September 11, 2001, he went to Berkeley, Calif., to deliver a heartfelt eulogy in honor of Mark Bingham, the gay hero of United Flight 93 who supported his presidential campaign in 2000.

A McCain presidency would transform the GOP for the better. Republicans chose a man who is driven by a temperament that inhibits him from resorting to the crass gay baiting of his peers. In January, when McCain discovered that his campaign was using robocalls to attack Mitt Romney's past support of "special rights" for gays, he stopped them.

Some gays will ask why they should support McCain over presumptive Democratic nominee Obama, who -- at least in his rhetoric -- promises to do more for gay rights. To be sure, McCain will not win over single-issue gay voters. But if you're concerned about Obama's foreign policy naivete or his proclivity for raising taxes, give McCain a serious look. Obama's pleasant speechifying about gay rights is belied by his thin legislative record, and it didn't stop him from parading around the hateful "ex-gay" preacher Donnie McClurkin to win black votes in South Carolina.

In a 1999 interview, McCain said he'd be "comfortable" with a gay president. This gay writer would be more than comfortable with John McCain in the Oval Office.

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James Kirchick