Introducing a new feature of this web column: Campaign Contortions ’04.
Politicians often find themselves in tight spots. They have to take stands on issues they’d rather duck. They find themselves caught trying to satisfy (or pander to) different constituencies. They want to escape from political and policy indiscretions of their youths (read: previous positions that might not help them now). Remember George W. Bush signing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that he had essentially called unconstitutional and pledged to veto while running for president? In the midst of the Enron scandal, he obviously felt he couldn’t shoot down a measure billed as a clean-up-politics initiative, despite the pleading from conservative activists to smother it and despite his own beliefs. It will “improve the system,” he said at the signing ceremony–as if he were drinking castor oil.
In the months ahead, I hope to honor the more impressive feats of political acrobatics. Had the idea of doing so occurred to me earlier, Senator John Kerry’s stance on the war in Iraq might have been worth a nomination. First, he was critical of Bush. He then voted for the legislation authorizing Bush to launch a war. After that, Kerry was critical of Bush again, urging more diplomacy. Once the invasion was launched, he said he supported Bush’s decision. Kerry is an intelligent man, and, no doubt, he can offer an explanation that would turn apparent zigs and zags into a straight line of principle. But effective contortions do require deftness.
Alas, the rules committee says, no ancient history qualifies. Consequently, the first CC goes to presidential contender Senator John Edwards, the North Carolinian who is trying to be a populist, to appeal to traditional Democratic liberals, and to exploit his standing as the sole Southerner-with-an-accent in the 2004 pack.
On May 12, he delivered a keynote address at a black tie dinner in Atlanta for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization. Edwards declared he supports the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children. “I was raised,” he said, “to believe…in an America that embraces everybody.” He added, “families are at the core of who we are as human beings. And committed families based on love and responsibility deserve to be respected. For me, those families include the families that are in this room tonight.” All Democratic presidential contenders have to take this line. But for Edwards, adopting this position does have a risk, since he may still decide to run for reelection in his home state.
So where is the contortion? Edwards’ campaign says that though he endorses gay adoption he has reservations about civil unions for gays and lesbians and would leave decisions on this matter to the states. His press secretary noted, “It’s an issue he thinks the country–and North Carolina–is not ready for.”
The not-ready-for dodge is classic. Is the question the national state of readiness, or what is right and wrong? (It’s hard to resist pointing out that Edwards’ Southern predecessors hid behind the not-ready-yet argument during the era of the civil rights movement.) But Edwards deserves a CC not for trotting out the it’s-not-time excuse. He wins it for saying states should recognize gays and lesbians as parents but not as partners. Which means he believes it is fine for children to be placed within families in which the parents are not granted the same rights and legitimacy as heterosexual parents. If “families are the core of who we are as human beings,” as Edwards told the HRCers, then why not strengthen families led by gays or lesbians? At least for the sake of the children.
Edwards’ position is a bit out of sync with the laws regarding gay family matters. Only one state–Florida–specifically bans a single gay or lesbian from adopting a child. But many states have laws and policies that discourage adoption by unmarried couples, and these are used to prevent gay couples from adopting. The law is complicated and unclear in many states, but the ACLU notes, “it’s generally easier for a gay individual to adopt a child than it is for a [gay] couple to adopt a child together.” This sends an odd message: one gay parent is okay; two are not. Gay and lesbian couples need more assistance in obtaining the right to adopt than do gay and lesbian singles. Edwards, though, is “not ready” to assist them via civil unions, which would presumably confer a right to adopt.
Is Edwards hoping to provide himself a slim piece of political cover by asserting gay adoption is important for children (“in a world where far too many children are neglected or unwanted, we need to encourage responsible, loving adults to raise children”) but gay partnerships do not deserve official recognition? “Edwards’ position on civil unions puts him in a more conservative position than most of the nine-person democratic presidential field,” The Charlotte Observer writes. “That could hurt him in the primaries but might limit conservatives’ anger during the general election.” Perhaps he sincerely believes gay adoption is fine but civil unions are problematic. If that is case, he ought to offer more of an explanation than the we’re-not-ready line.
For telling gays and lesbians, you have the right to be a parent but not to be a legal partner, Edwards picks up the first CC of the 2004 election.
I’ll hand out other CCs–as long as politicians continue to contort. If you have any nominations, send them along to email@example.com. And, please, do use the word “contortion” in the subject head.