Queer Town: McCain Plays Small Ball in California

On the evening of June 26, with the right kind of ears, a steady, collective groan could be heard from thousands of gay Republicans throughout California…followed by an eerie silence. Their man, Senator John McCain, decided to play small ball in his quest for the White House, and came out with a two-line endorsement of the anti-gay marriage ballot measure, now officially known as Proposition 8. It was a move, according to one political strategist, to “solidify his base.” But over the coming months, it can easily be spun into something much more different.

Queer Town: McCain Plays Small Ball in California

(Photo courtesy of John McCain 2008)

The statement was released late in the weekly news cycle on a Thursday evening on a web site few people read. “I support the efforts of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman,” McCain wrote to the honchos of the ProtectMarriage.com campaign, the leading group behind the anti-gay marriage ballot measure, “just as we did in my home state of Arizona. I do not believe judges should be making these decisions.”

No major newspapers ran with the statement until Saturday—a dead zone for breaking news stories—although various news outlets posted the press release on their web sites on Friday. Also on Friday, the proposed same sex marriage ban was given an official designation by the state—Proposition 8. Campaign staff on both sides of the gay marriage fight are no doubt ordering “Vote No (or Yes) on Prop. 8” placards this very minute.

For the most part, the press covered the McCain endorsement as an ordinary development in a political battle that seems to shift and sway every week. “The sponsors of a ballot initiative that seeks to ban same-sex marriage in California say Republican presidential candidate John McCain has endorsed the measure,” ho-hummed an Associated Press report, which ran in the San Jose Mercury News and many other newspapers over the weekend.

Senator Barack Obama also didn’t make too much out of McCain’s stance, with no urgent press releases from the Democratic presidential candidate denouncing his Republican rival. When I called Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago on Saturday, spokesman Ben LaBolt replied with this email: “Barack Obama has always believed that same-sex couples should enjoy equal rights under the law, and he will continue to fight for civil unions as president. He respects the decision of the California Supreme Court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage.”

As for gay Republicans, the silence, as they say, was almost deafening. Log Cabin Republicans, in California and on the national level, posted nothing on their web sites about McCain’s statement. BoifromTroy.com blogger and gay Republican Scott Schmidt, though, did ask the senator, “Then when is it appropriate for judges to make decisions? Only when they agree with him?” I emailed Schmidt for additional comments, but didn’t receive a reply.

GayPatriot.net, another gay Republican blog, took the opportunity to turn things around and ask where Obama stands on same sex marriage without taking McCain to task. When I contacted B. Daniel Blatt, the Los Angeles correspondent for GayPatriot.net, he sent me this email: “Obviously, I'd rather McCain had remained silent on the California ballot initiative on marriage. While he has shown a willingness to meet with gay people and showed some sensitivity to our concerns, he is not perfect on issues of concern to the gay community.” Blatt later said he may wait to post something on McCain out of courtesy to me. I told him that wasn’t necessary.

But many people—from gay Republican bloggers to mainstream journalists—seemed to miss, or ignore, the true angle of the McCain statement: He was making a national political play for fundamentalist Christians. In an email, Los Angeles-based Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg wrote to me: “McCain took the position this is a state issue. That said, he could have either (a) said it is an issue for California voters to decide and stayed neutral, or (b) said he supported the measure. He chose the latter, probably to help solidify his base.”

McCain, in other words, wants to pull another George Bush circa 2004 by capturing the fear/religious vote—the “base”—at the expense of gays and lesbians. It was more politics as usual from the Arizona senator, who runs as a “change” candidate with the campaign slogan: “Reform, Prosperity, Peace.” And, in the long term, it may not even be smart politics.

(Photo courtesy of John McCain 2008)

Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s now at odds with McCain on gay marriage and off-shore oil drilling. In front of a happy crowd of Log Cabin Republicans in San Diego, the California governor said he would “fight” the anti-gay marriage ballot measure. Team Schwarzenegger always thinks about the big picture, and if anyone thought banning gay marriage would propel the boss to a whole new level of political stardom, he probably would’ve done it. “Whatever he does will be less about the issue than his future political ambitions, whatever they are,” Steinberg told me for an LA Weekly cover story on gay marriage and the California Republican party.

Right now, Schwarzenegger sees gay marriage as some kind of winner, which may really involve wrestling the Republican party—in California and probably elsewhere—out of the hands of the Religious Right. A few months ago, a Republican political strategist told me Schwarzenegger and other prominent moderate Republicans across the country were making a strong push to do exactly that. If Proposition 8 fails this November, longtime political operatives like David Mixner are already saying that fundamentalist Christians, who largely head up the anti-gay marriage movement and heavily influence the national Republican party, will be “stopped in their tracks.” This is good news for Schwarzenegger and people of his ilk, and you would think McCain, another moderate of sorts, would want to be a part of the larger strategy to unplug the power of the Religious Right within the GOP.

Instead, his advisors apparently told him to think small, go the easy route, and make friends with religious activists. But now he’s tied to a constituency that still doesn’t trust him and he probably doesn’t like, especially after they stopped cold the building momentum of his 2000 presidential campaign in South Carolina, where hard core religious/political operatives smeared a younger McCain with charges of siring “children without marriage.” Bush won that primary and the straight talker from Arizona never recovered…and probably never forgot.

McCain didn’t have to make that uneasy alliance. Instead, if the senator really wanted to stick out as a man of change and blow the minds of millions Americans—even Obama’s—he could have used his post-California Supreme Court ruling appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show to proclaim, ‘Hey, I’ve been wrong. I’m for love, I’m for the pursuit of happiness, I’m for same sex marriage.’ That didn’t happen. McCain sat next to the popular lesbian talk show host, grinned awkwardly when she asked him about gay marriage, and said he had a “respectful disagreement.” Opportunity blown.

Now a window opens for the other side. It’s not hard to imagine a political advertisement popping up some day soon featuring a Vietnam veteran who served with McCain, or spent time in the same North Vietnamese prison as a fellow prisoner of war, wearing a silver medal on his lapel and shedding a tear from his eye. Next to the gray-haired vet, a gay son or granddaughter sits on a stool and looks up at him reverently, while the man stares straight into the camera and says, “Senator John McCain has let my family down.” It could be the “Willie Horton” ad for a new generation, and it could have been avoided if John Sidney McCain III, a man known to make some very righteous and difficult decisions in his life, looked into his heart and stood up for something that he probably knows is right.

Note: After I posted this article, it was reported that Senator Barack Obama wrote a letter to the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco. While I was reporting for the piece, no one from the Obama campaign informed me of the note. In it, the Democratic presidential candidate wrote in clear language his opposition to Proposition 8. "I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states," Obama wrote. Like I've mentioned in other posts, the battle over gay marriage--for various political reasons--will be a national one, and now it most certainly is.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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