Jonathan Capehart’s post this morning on the Washington Post’s PostPartisan blog opines that the fact that LGBT issues have been absent from the presidential election cycle this year is not just a good thing, but “a great thing.” Capehart is absolutely right to highlight the incredible shift in the salience of gay rights issues to moderate voters, taking marriage equality and related social issues off the table as the right’s go-to wedge issues. But I think the shift has actually moved farther than Capehart indicates. He cites a source indicating that the Democratic party doesn’t see advocacy for great legal protections for LGBT equality as an issue on which the party can win with swing voters. Capehart may be right about the Democrats’ belief, but if he is, the Democrats are ceding a winning issue. President Obama and his campaign should be working to highlight the Administration’s stances on LGBT equality and make the case for continuing those policies into a second-term.
Capehart begins and ends his analysis with the same basic point: we know where the President stands. Capehart points particularly to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the President’s declaration of personal support for marriage equality, and then concludes that “actions speak louder than words.” The cliche may be true in many circumstances, and may be a mantra that the President wants to trot out to challenge Mitt Romney’s ever-shifting rhetoric on any number of issues, but it’s not a good strategy to apply to an issue that no one is talking about. Campaigns are all about highlighting the candidate’s past achievements, whether those were in the same office or a prior one. No incumbent runs a campaign by refusing to talk about positive steps taken in the administration’s first term. Mitt Romney spent most of the campaign pretending that he was never Governor of Massachusetts and avoiding discussing details of his time of Bain. Only when things started to look dire did Romney embrace his record in Massachusetts, and lo and behold, his campaign turned around. People wanted more than words from Mitt Romney, and words about his actions did the trick. If in fact LGBT equality is a winning issue, just because the President has defined his stand doesn’t mean that he should stop talking about.
But that conclusion requires the premise that trumpeting the Obama Administration’s steps toward full LGBT equality would be a winning issue, a premise which Capehart disputes. Importantly though, it’s not just Democrats that are avoiding the subject. Republicans are too, exactly the shift in focus from the past few election cycles that precipitated Capehart’s post. Yet when Bay Buchanan, a Romney surrogate, made a statement suggesting that the Republican nominee might be taking a more moderate stance on the issue, she quickly corrected her mistake by reaffirming Romney’s support for a marriage amendment to the Constitution. If it is so important to the Romney campaign to avoid campaigning on the social issues, why is it equally important to maintain extremist policy positions in private? The extremist positions, like President Obama’s personal support for marriage equality, are key to the party’s fundraising and organizing efforts because they resonate with the party base. Romney can’t back away from these positions without simultaneously alienating the Christian right and exposing himself to the “Etch-a-Sketch” critique. So if, as was suggested by the Romney bounce following the first debate, swing voters want to hear a more moderate Romney on the trail, it would seem like the Democrats could force Romney into the choice of alienating the middle or potentially alienating his base.
So why won’t the Democrats make the case that the President holds the reasonable, moderate, modern position while his challenger is beholden to a rabid anti-gay element within his base? Capehart suggests that the reason might be that this election is supposed to be about jobs, and that even LGBT voters are more concerned about jobs and the economy than they are about marriage equality. I don’t dispute the poll numbers, only the conclusion he draws from them. There are two reasons why making the case for LGBT equality broadly belongs in a jobs, jobs, jobs elections. First, for LGBT voters, the issue is about more than marriage equality. If marriage equality were the only issue, I could more readily accept Capehart’s view that pushing it front and center could be a losing issue with some groups of swing voters. But LGBT equality means more than marriage equality, and that equality starts at work. Many states extend no legal protection to people who are discriminated against in employment decisions because of their sexual orientation, and that lack of protections has real human results. To the extent that President Obama wants to shore up the support and donations of the LGBT community, he should be making the case for fairness in the workplace as part of a jobs agenda.
Second, a fairness agenda will appeal to many voters outside the LGBT community, many of whom may be swing voters. Because voters are focused on jobs, they are less likely to be scared by wedge issues into voting for a candidate that won’t represent their economic interests. A campaign that included LGBT equality as part of its second-term agenda would fit well into a campaign that is trying to make the case that one candidate is for the 100% and one is for the 1%. As Capehart points out, there are many high income people for whom LGBT equality is a no-brainer. These people tend to be more libertarian in their views, supporting the free market while wanting the government out of the personal lives of individuals. Discrimination is not the work of a rational free market. There is no way to defend the belief that job-seekers will do best when government gets out of the way and allows employers to make irrational choices that negatively affect their employees lives. This narrative is right in line with the narrative that a Romney administration wouldn’t actual work for free and fair markets, but for markets that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Romney has a Gilded Age view of the merits of big business, a Leave It To Beaver view on the role of women, and a Bowers v. Hardwick view of homosexuality.
Silence on LGBT issues is no doubt a step in the right direction from the extremely recent era in which raising the scourge of same-sex marriages was enough to send voters rushing to the polls to sweep in Republican majorities. But silence allows the Republican nominee to continue to publicize antiquated, extremist views to his base, while trying to put forth a moderate face to moderate voters. Opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and support for a federal marriage amendment are not moderate views. Additionally, they are not views consistent with a pro-freedom agenda that would result in broadly shared American prosperity. Instead, they are the views of a candidate beholden to the powerful, whether the source of that power is wealth or religious fervor. Actions may speak louder than words, but if President Obama was willing to speak about the actions he has already taken, that would speak the loudest about how out of touch the Republican party is with a country seeking fair and equal opportunities.