You would think that in their desire to win the White House and control two of the three branches of government the Democratic candidates would be making some effort to differentiate themselves from the Republicans and seize the high moral ground and attract disenchanted voters. When literally handed a golden opportunity to stand up for something meaningful, you would think that they would grab it with both hands.
Well, that golden prize was offered to them in Los Angeles on Thursday and they gawked at it like scared children, covered their asses and ran for safety.
All of the Democratic candidates except for Biden and Dodd appeared Thursday night at a forum held by the Human Rights Campaign and the gay cable network Logo. Questions were asked by noted gay activist and musician Melissa Etheridge, two gay journalists and the director of the HRC. The format was much more formal than a debate, with each candidate coming in separately to answer questions from the panel, with no direct interaction with their opponents.
Not surprisingly, among other questions on gay rights issues, they were asked where they stood on gay marriage. This was their chance to make a statement that would set them apart from the crowd, but what we got from the major candidates was hemming and hawing, half-measures and confusion. What we didn't get was any of the front-runners even coming close to endorsing gay marriage, though the two fringe candidates, Kucinich and Gravel who have little to lose by taking risks, did step up in support. The rest more or less endorsed the idea of civil unions, a position so uncontroversial that it's shared by President Bush and most of the major Republican candidates. Bill Richardson continued his plummet from most promising candidate to biggest disappointment by making an unasked for comment about homosexuality being a choice and then retracting it after the forum was over.
Other questions were handled a bit better, including all of the candidates agreeing that it was time to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. Hillary Clinton did a reasonable job selling the idea that she had changed her position, despite her uninspiring record which includes a vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act. Richardson also turned in an honest but not terribly reassuring defense of his vote for the act on the basis that it was a cynical political tactic to head off an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.
Barack Obama came closer than any other candidate to supporting gay marriage – and viewer polling suggests he was the winner with the target audience – when he made the convincing argument that marriage was a church sacrament and that the government should stay out of marriage altogether as a matter of separation of church and state. It wasn't exactly support for gay marriage, but it's as close as any candidate came that night.
The unwillingness of the other candidates to take a strong position, or come up with a good explanation for their past actions, makes me wonder what they expected to be asked when they came to a forum sponsored by a gay rights group and a gay cable network. I suspect that Biden and Dodd, who hold some of the most socially conservative positions of the group, realized the trouble they could get into and were wise to follow the lead of the Republican candidates (who were also invited) and stay away. Given the nature of their answers, Clinton and Edwards and Richardson might have been wiser to join them as well.
The nation desperately needs leadership from someone of high ideals who has a core set of beliefs and holds to them regardless of whether they test well in focus groups. The President's job is to make decisions, and to do that effectively you need to believe in something more than just winning an election. In this campaign that quality of leadership seems to be missing from most of the major candidates in both parties. I'd be happy just to see a major candidate from either party whose positions don't look like they were formed by a committee of lawyers.
Look at the approval ratings of Congress (24%) and the President (29%). Do you think we actually want more of the same old pandering and reliable mediocrity for another four years? Apparently the major Democratic candidates think we do. This was their chance to take a stand on an issue that a lot of people care about, stake out the moral high ground and set themselves above the pack, and no one with more than 2% in the polls wanted to take even this mildly controversial position. If they cannot lead on an issue like this, how can we expect them to lead on more critical issues?
Now voters are left wondering whether there is any candidate who has the necessary qualities to be the kind of president the nation needs.