By Bob Roehr
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean appeared on The 700 Club on May 10, courting the Christian evangelicals who constitute the political base of the Republican Party. He claimed that the Democratic Party platform “said marriage is between a man and a woman.”
But that is not in fact what the platform says. Rather, it states, “We support full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and seek equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families.” It also supports the tradition of states defining their own marriage laws and opposes amending the U.S. Constitution to change that.
That triggered a wave of angry statements from the LGBT community, many of whom saw Dean’s comments as a cynical political ploy. It served to ratchet up the growing discontent with Dean and the Party within the community.
Dean also said during his television appearance, “Everybody deserves to live with dignity and respect and equal rights under the law are important. I’m not saying we’ll agree with everything between the more conservative evangelicals and Democrats but I think there’s more common ground and we’re willing to work with the evangelical community.”
“Is this a baldface lie to pander to the religious right? I’d like to give Dean the benefit of the doubt, but some Democratic insiders who have corrected Dean on this very point in the past say yes,” wrote David Mariner on the blog Out for Democracy. Mariner was active in Dean’s presidential campaign, which spawned the blog.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “Governor Dean’s record on LGBT issues since becoming DNC chair has been sorely and sadly lacking. The Democratic Party chair should stand by and fight for the Party’s own platform and values.” Putting its money where its mouth is, Foreman returned a recent $5,000 contribution to the DNC.
“Governor Dean’s comments weren’t a mere slip of the tongue but a glaring reminder of the governor’s lack of leadership on this issue,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in an unusually tart comment for that organization.
“As we face a Senate vote in June that threatens to put discrimination in our Constitution, Governor Dean should not only have known better but he should have used the opportunity to speak out about the lack of values involved in the current constitutional debate.”
Dean issued a clarifying statement the following day. “I misstated the Democratic Party’s platform, which does not say that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, but says the Party is committed to full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and leaves the issue to the states to decide … our Party continues to oppose constitutional amendments that seek to short circuit the debate on how to achieve equality for all Americans.”
Chicago political consultant and fundraiser Michael Bauer is “willing to take Dean at face value that he misspoke. I don’t think that Howard Dean is the enemy. He has problems with same sex marriage that we need to keep working on. But he is a strong advocate for gay and lesbian equality – the level of recognition we can argue over.”
He says, “Governor Dean needs to understand the perspective that the [LGBT community] views this from.” That includes John Kerry’s opposition to gay marriage in Massachusetts and his support of a constitutional amendment to ban it in Missouri during the 2004 presidential campaign, as well as attempts to pin Kerry’s loss on gays and marriage. Dean’s elimination of the LGBT outreach staff at the DNC also ruffled feathers.
Bauer is calling for an ongoing dialog within the Party to lower the rhetoric and discuss the substance of the issues. “We need to keep working on convincing members of the Democratic caucus that not only should they be opposed to the federal marriage amendment, but understand why marriage equality is a fundamental right for us.”
Ken Sherrill, a Democratic activist and professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City, is not so generous toward Dean. “It can’t be incompetence; if his memory is that bad, who would trust him to remember what he learned in medical school.” He calls it “A calculated attempt by Dean to rewrite history for the purpose of neutralizing voters.”
Many of the Christian evangelical viewers of The 700 Club, who voted overwhelmingly for President Bush, are growing disenchanted with the man and his party over a range of issues. Reducing their perception of Democrats as a threat might at least decrease their participation in the next election, to the Democrats’ benefit.
Sherrill believes that Dean and the Democrats are “trying to get rid of a distraction [gay marriage and gays in general] to focus on the core issues that they think they can win on in the election.”
The first question is whether Dean is seen as credible to those viewers. “But given some of the things that Pat Robertson has said, some of these people are awfully gullible.”
Sherrill predicts that Karl Rove will run commercials of Dean’s 700 Club appearance juxtaposed against his appearance at LGBT events and raise the charge of flip-flopping. “That undermines the Party’s credibility and reinforces the view that these people will say anything to get elected, I can’t trust them.”
He notes that people often vote for candidates with which they disagree on some issues because of the personal character. The charge of flip-flopping was what lost John Kerry the election. “To reinforce the attitude that cost the Democrats the presidency in 2004 is one of the dumbest things imaginable. It invites the message that the Democrats don’t have the courage of their convictions. When the nation is at war, the voters don’t want cowards in charge.”
Sherrill says,”It is dumb politics, it is suicidally stupid. It reinforces the most negative attitudes that the voters have towards the Democratic Party and its capability to lead this country.”