Don't ask, don't tell

At a forum on gay rights, Obama, Edwards and Clinton struggle to explain why they don't support same-sex marriage.

Published August 10, 2007 11:35AM (EDT)

At a televised forum on gay rights Thursday night, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton explained, one after another, why they don't support gay marriage.

Check that.

Obama, Edwards and Clinton explained that they don't support gay marriage, but they struggled -- to the extent they tried at all -- to explain why. The answer, we assume, is that they've figured that they can't get elected president if they go around saying that they believe gay partners should be allowed to wed. But only Obama came even a little bit close to admitting as much. And if any of the three had a more principled answer than that, we didn't hear it Thursday night.

Barack Obama: When a questioner asked Obama how he can "run as the candidate of change" when his stance on same-sex marriage is "decidedly old school," the candidate responded with exasperation. "Oh, come on now," Obama said. "Look guys, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes. There's a reason why I was here first. It's because I have a track record of working on these issues . . . . What I have focused on, and what I will continue to focus on, is making sure that the rights that are provided by the federal government, and the state governments and local governments, are ones that are provided to everybody. That's a standard I think I can meet, and I don't make promises I can't keep."

John Edwards: When a questioner noted that Edwards has, in the past, raised his faith as a reason for opposing same-sex marriage, Edwards said that he had been wrong to do so. "You know, I have to tell you, I shouldn't have said that," Edwards said. "We have seen a president in the last six-plus years who tries to impose his faith on the American people. I think it is a mistake, and I will not impose my faith belief on the Ameircan people." So if it's not faith, why does Edwards oppose same-sex marriage? He didn't say. "First of all, I believe to my core in equality," Edwards explained. "My campaign for the presidency is about equality, across the board. . . . It makes perfect sense to me that gay and lesbian couples would say, 'Civil unions, great, 1,100 federal benefits, great. You know, give us these rights, we deserve these rights' -- and they're absolutely right about that -- 'but it stops short of real equality.' It makes perfect sense to me that people would feel that way. I mean, I can understand it, it makes sense." Somebody noted that Edwards has said he's on a "journey" on the issue and asked him when and where that "journey" might end. "I think you deserve the truth," Edwards said, "and the truth is, my position on same sex marriage has not changed. . . . I do believe strongly in civil unions and the substantive rights that go with that. . . ."

Hillary Clinton: Asked to explain what's "at the heart" of her opposition to same-sex marriage, Clinton said: "Well, I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions." Everyone laughed, then Clinton continued: "You know, it's a personal position. . . . For me, we have made it very clear in our country that we believe in equality. How we get to full equality is the debate that we're having." Clinton pointed to her efforts in helping defeat a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed gay marriage nationwide, and she said she thinks it's important to leave the issue in the hands of the states, where she said the tide is beginning to turn. Asked if she could "sympathize" with the "frustration" marriage advocates feel when they're told that it's a "state's rights" issue, Clinton said: "Absolutely." But then, after praising the gay community for the work it's doing to advance the issue, she suggested that more waiting will have to be done: "This has not been a long-term struggle yet," she said.

Of the candidates who appeared at Thursday night's forum, only two, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, said that they supported the idea of same-sex marriage. If Obama, Clinton and Edwards were too cautious by half, Kucinich suffered from the opposite problem. The man who came off as a contender at this week's AFL-CIO forum in Chicago was back in what we used to call "Gov. Moonbeam" territory in Los Angeles. He talked of our ability to help one another "evolve." He declared that "real unity is to respect each other's inner equality." And looking at the Human Rights Campaign logo on the wall behind him, he said: "You know, I see the equal sign there, and I have the same sign in my office in Washington, D.C. Now, imagine that equal sign inside a heart, because what we're really talking about here is human love, and there's no power on this earth greater than human love." As he spoke, Kucinich used his fingers to draw a big heart in the air.

Kucinich's love-is-all approach won him a lot of support in the studio -- questioner Melissa Etheridge said she had to be warned not to "fawn" over him -- which isn't exactly how things worked out for Bill Richardson. When Etheridge asked Richardson if he thinks homosexuality is "a choice or biological," he said: "It's a choice. It's. . . It's . . . " Etheridge cut him off, saying, "I don't know if you understand the question." Richardson backpedaled, sort of, saying he's "not a scientist" and doesn't "like to answer definitions like that that are perhaps grounded in science or something else that I don't understand." After the forum ended, Richardson's campaign issued a "clarifying" statement in which the candidate said that he does not, in fact, "believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice."

Richardson doesn't support the legalization of gay marriage, either. But to his credit, at least he was honest about the political reasons for his stance. "The country isn't there yet on gay marriage," he said. "We have to bring the country along."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Dennis Kucinich D-ohio Gay Marriage Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards