Elections Are Coming, Elections Are Coming

Commentary by John D'Emilio
Director, Policy Institute, NGLTF

Now that Iowa and New Hampshire are behind us, you can bet the media will sharpen its focus until almost nothing but election news is in view. This year's campaigns seem especially important. Not only will gay and lesbian issues surface directly -- witness the Marriage Protection Rally in Iowa -- but the whole tone and content of the campaigns could decisively shape the political context in which we do our work for years to come.

Elections like this one, in which extremist candidates are running for office, raise interesting questions about whom we support and don't, about how we decide who is for or against us, and about the calculus of politics that we each carry in our heads. Sometimes the decision is easy: what self-respecting lesbian or gay man would do anything but actively oppose Helms, Dornan, or Buchanan, who have made attacking us their mission? By the same token, how can we be anything but happy when Barbara Boxer, a Senator from California, runs for reelection?

Most candidates fall somewhere in between these two poles and, in a two-party system where we don't have many choices, we face interesting dilemmas. If Sam Nunn, a middle-of-the-road sort of guy on most issues, had chosen to run for re-election, what would gay Georgians do? After all, he did lead the charge in support of the military's exclusion policy. On the other hand, would an untested Republican opponent, from a region in which the party is deeply homophobic, have been better?

Or, take another Georgian, Newt Gingrich. I've heard many say that, with a lesbian half-sister, he can't be all bad, and that, since becoming majority leader, he's quieted his antigay rhetoric and kept the House "extremists" in line. Yet, at the same time, he has been the architect of the so-called Republican Revolution which threatens the viability of programs such as Medicaid and which has created a climate hostile to civil rights of any sorts. He also allowed the House to hold the antigay hearings on schools, which Lou Sheldon requested. How can Gingrich's reelection possibly be good for us?

The question of whom to support becomes especially fascinating when we look at the field of Republican presidential hopefuls in the wake of Buchanan's victory in New Hampshire. Shortly after the primary, the Log Cabin Republicans said that, in contrast to the extremist Buchanan, four other candidates had "potential": Dole, Alexander, Forbes, and Lugar.

The response puzzles me. Certainly, if Buchanan is your point of reference, those other candidates look good. But let's sharpen our lens. Forbes, for instance, avoided the "social issues" for a long time. But when Republican Christian extremists in Iowa made his silence an issue, he spoke out against same-sex marriage and gays in the military. Dole and Alexander are making a big deal about Buchanan's extremism after his New Hampshire showing, but both of them were willing to sign on to a hate-inspired anti-gay "Marriage Protection" rally in Des Moines.

But there's a larger issue that's being ignored. "Moderate" Republican presidential aspirants are not running solo. They are the candidates of a party which is able to make a bid to become the majority party precisely because extremists have flocked to the GOP. Without the Christian extremists, without the crusaders for "traditional family values," the Republican party wouldn't have a chance in hell of electing a president or controlling Congress. Whoever runs for President as a Republican will need the intolerant hatemongers in order to win, and therefore be in debt to them. And in most states, the same is true of Republicans running for the Senate, the House, or for state office.

Then there's Clinton. He leads the party in which the strongest support for gay rights is to be found. But he, too, opposes same-sex marriage, and gave us "don't ask, don't tell." On the other hand, he's been good on appointing us to government positions, supports bans on discrimination in employment, and employs a political rhetoric of inclusion and tolerance. All in all, a mixed record.

In the end, deciding who to support this year will involve a lot more than simply assessing the words and deeds of particular candidates, although that can be a starting point. It also requires, especially in races for national office, that we scrutinize who a candidate is willing to run alongside, what political environment he or she is choosing to call home, and whose support they require in order to win.

Dr. John D'Emilio is the director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). Based in Washington, DC, NGLTF is a progressive organization that has supported grassroots organizing and pioneered in national advocacy since 1973.
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