John McCain has made it hard to vote for him. Linking Barack
Obama to terrorism was odious. Choosing Sarah Palin was reckless.
Still, an advocate of gay equality who's otherwise closer to
McCain's views on economic and foreign policy can support him with
a clear conscience. That's because the differences on gay issues -
as a practical matter - are less dramatic than we've been told by
the organized "GLBT movement." As the practical differences on gay
issues get smaller, non-gay issues grow in salience.
You wouldn't know it by listening to gay pundits and
organizations, but McCain is the most gay-friendly Republican
presidential nominee ever. That's not just faint praise. Despite
election-season pandering to the religious right, he's not one of
them and they know it. He has openly gay staffers and campaign
officials. He has defended his gay colleagues in public office
against attacks by religious conservatives. The convention that
nominated him was free of anti-gay rhetoric. Even marriage, long a
crowd-pleaser, was rarely mentioned. In fact, 49 percent of the
delegates to the GOP convention supported civil unions or gay
marriage. And unlike Bush in 2004, McCain's campaign has not
There's much more. In a first for a Republican presidential
nominee, McCain recently responded in writing to questions from the
Washington Blade, DC's gay newspaper. The responses, while
occasionally mealy-mouthed, were encouraging. Yet gay activists
replied to the interview as if he'd called for death camps for
Take the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which McCain voted
against in 1996. Gay organizations' scorecards continue to say that
he "opposes" ENDA. The truth is more complicated. McCain told the
Blade that he now supports "non-discrimination in hiring
for gay and lesbian people" and will "give careful consideration"
to ENDA. Moreover, his lingering reservations about ENDA are not
"anti-gay": if drafted too broadly, the law will needlessly erode
religious liberty and generate frivolous and costly litigation.
Skeptics will say these are excuses for vetoing ENDA, no matter
what form it takes. They may be right. But it's significant that
McCain, who unlike Obama has a long record of actually working
productively with the other party, also promises to consult
Congress to meet these concerns. Unlike Obama, McCain could
actually get around a possible GOP filibuster in the Senate to pass
Still, Obama would sign ENDA no matter how broadly drafted. A
Democratic Congress wouldn't have the votes to override a McCain
veto, which would at least mean a narrower bill than we'd get under
Obama. So the advantage goes to Obama, but the difference is
smaller than once supposed.
Obama supports a hate-crimes law covering sexual orientation.
McCain would veto it largely on federalism grounds because
controlling crime is primarily the responsibility of the states.
Again, that's not an "anti-gay" view; indeed, protecting the
states' prerogatives to decide important policy matters was the
basis for McCain's and many congressional Democrats' opposition to
a federal marriage amendment in 2004 and 2006. In any case, there's
no evidence such laws actually deter hate crimes, so Obama is
better on an issue that doesn't much matter in practice.
Then there's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which Obama opposes. As
gay organizations like to remind us, McCain supported it in 1993
(as did Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress back then).
But, in another sign of a thaw ignored or belittled by gay
leaders and writers, McCain told the Blade he "will have
the policy reviewed." He is open to ending DADT, he said, but only
if military leaders agree. So the upshot, one might think, is that
Obama will end DADT while McCain will only "review" whether to end
it. That's a big difference between them, you say.
Not so fast. Like McCain, Obama would need the support of
military leaders to end the ban. He would then have to pressure
Congress on a matter involving military policy and national
security, areas of perennial Democratic political
Neither persuading military leaders nor wary congressional
Democrats to end DADT is a given in an Obama administration. Unlike
McCain, Obama has no military background and little credibility
with the military brass. (If, on the other hand, McCain decided to
end the ban, he would be uniquely positioned to do so, like Richard
Nixon traveling to China.) Also unlike McCain, Obama has an
undistinguished legislative record, which bodes ill for pressuring
his own party or Republicans on the issue.
Thus, it's unlikely that DADT would be repealed in an Obama
administration. I agree that it's better symbolically to have a
president on record against DADT than one who's agnostic about it,
but the outcome is likely to be the same: no end to DADT in the
Both men oppose gay marriage. But McCain supported the Defense
of Marriage Act (along with Bill Clinton and most congressional
Democrats) back in 1996, and continues to support it, while Obama
opposes it. This another area in which the conventional gay-rights
scorecard favors Obama.
But here we have another distinction that makes little practical
difference. Repealing DOMA would be very difficult, requiring full
presidential commitment and masterful legislative skills. Obama
might be up to this task, but there's little evidence of it so
Gay pundits and leaders love to remind us that Obama opposes
California's Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriage. But they
never mention that Obama's "opposition" has consisted of a single
letter sent several months ago to a local gay Democratic group in
San Francisco. No public statements. No TV or radio ads. McCain
supports Prop 8, but never mentions it in his campaign. Again,
there's a paper advantage to Obama here, but neither his nominal
opposition to Prop 8 nor McCain's nominal support for it has had
any practical impact.
Despite what he once erroneously said, McCain does not oppose
gay adoptions. His campaign clarified that he supports adoptions by
loving parents, without regard to sexual orientation. In fact,
McCain told the Blade that he "respect[s] the hundreds of
thousands of gay and lesbian people" struggling and doing their
best to raise adopted children. Gay groups have pounced on McCain's
original misstatement as evidence that he's "anti-gay," but they
never get around to explaining the context and the subsequent
Also on the subject of gay marriage, we should never forget that
McCain led the charge against the Federal Marriage Amendment,
loudly bucking his own party and President Bush when it really
counted. Though he seems genuinely accepting of gay people, Obama
has never taken a position on gay rights that cost him politically.
McCain did so on the single most important gay issue of this
It's true that Sarah Palin recently broke with McCain and
endorsed the FMA, just as Dick Cheney broke with Bush in 2004 to
oppose the FMA. But Palin is not the presidential candidate in this
race, McCain is. Amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage is
off the table politically, regardless of what Palin thinks - thanks
in part to McCain.
The upshot legislatively is this: Under Obama we'd likely get
ENDA and a symbolic hate-crimes law. Under McCain, we might get a
narrower ENDA and no hate-crimes law. That's all. It's a difference
that gay voters are surely right to take into account, but it's
hardly a huge difference.
Finally, Obama's judicial nominees will be more gay-friendly and
more aggressive about using judicial power to support gay rights
than McCain's will be. But McCain will face a strongly Democratic
Senate, which will moderate his choices. He also tends to favor
judicial-restraint conservatives who respect precedent rather than
judicial-activist conservatives who want a right-wing legal
So while they won't advance the cause, McCain's nominees
probably won't reverse prominent gay-rights legal victories,
either. Despite what you may have heard, it's unlikely the Supreme
Court's decision overturning sodomy laws will even be reviewed,
much less reversed, because of appointments by McCain.
None of this will persuade a liberal voter who prefers Obama on
lots of non-gay issues. Nor will it persuade a single-issue
gay-rights supporter who cares about nothing else. I respect these
choices. I myself opposed Bush in 2000 and 2004 because he backed
sodomy laws and the FMA. These were red lines for me and Bush
But this year is different. While Obama is undisputedly better
on gay issues than McCain, the differences in likely results are
not so great that a vote for McCain is unforgivable. For those gay
and gay-supportive voters who worry about the effect of an Obama
administration combined with a Democratic Congress on taxes,
spending, trade, Iraq, and national security against terrorism, a
vote for McCain this year is not a betrayal of gay rights. For such
voters, it's the right choice.