By Lisa Keen
WASHINGTON – Just 10 days before the first televised debate among the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden elicited enthusiastic cheers Saturday as they addressed two separate Human Rights Campaign events in Washington, D.C. It was an important opportunity for both to lay out their credentials and proposals to the national LGBT community, and the speeches illustrated some important contrasts between them.
Vice President Biden has not yet announced whether he intends to enter the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, and his speech to the HRC National Dinner Saturday night gave no indication he’s revving up for such a run. The address consisted mostly of anecdotes that he’s shared at many previous HRC events and – except for a clear endorsement of the recently introduced Equality Act – was more a look back at accomplishments than forward to future intentions.
Former Secretary of State Clinton focused on specific things she would do for LGBT Americans “as president,” making a number of important promises and carefully couching others. She also eschewed her usual quick departure following her speech and waded into the friendly fray, shaking hands and posing for photos with the large crowd gathered from various HRC boards and major HRC donors.
When a lone audience member at HRC’s cavernous black tie sit-down banquet yelled out “Run, Joe, Run” as Biden was about to explain what “a number of you have said to me over the last three to four years,” Biden quickly replied, “No, didn’t say that,” then looked down at the podium and grinned as the crowd sat mostly quiet. “Oh, anyway … what was I saying?” The audience then erupted into applause.
Clinton’s appearance, at 10 a.m. Saturday, drew more of a rousing campaign-like response from an already standing assembly of HRC organizational stalwarts, chanting “Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry.” Out of the jam-packed room, Clinton found and pointed to Supreme Court plaintiffs Jim Obergefell and Edie Windsor. And, in subtle ways, she addressed what are likely to be her weaknesses in soliciting LGBT support for her campaign if she finds herself in a tough contest with Biden or with the popular progressive candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“You’ve helped change a lot of minds, including mine,” said Clinton, “and I’m personally very grateful for that.” It was a reference to the oft-cited criticism that Clinton did not support marriage equality until after a majority of the American public was already polling its support for it.
Biden said he believes the remaining work for the LGBT movement “will come much more quickly and more surely.” And while he said he “strongly supports” the Equality Act, he did not promise he would push for it but rather that “it will pass.”
Acknowledging that there are still young LGBT people “terrified of being rejected by the world” around them, Clinton said she knows “we still have work to do.”
“Our work isn’t finished until every single person is treated with equal rights and dignity they deserve,” said Clinton. “…I want you to know that I get it. I see the injustices and the dangers that you and your families still face. And I’m running for president to end them once and for all.”
The HRC gathering responded with prolonged and thunderous applause to that line and one that quickly followed: “I’m running for president to stand up for the fundamental rights of LGBT Americans and all Americans. That’s a promise, from one HRC to another.”
“Congress must pass the federal Equality Act,” said Clinton, later. “As president, I will fight for it and I hope many of you will be with me when I sign it into law.”
Regarding the service of transgender people in the military, Biden stated that “transgender people are able to serve,” thanks to a directive from Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Clinton more accurately noted that transgender people “are still banned from serving” unless they remain closeted, and she stated her support for “the policy review” Carter directed, adding that she “hopes” transgender people will be allowed to serve openly.
There were similarities in both speeches. Both emphasized the role of all individual LGBT Americans in reaching today’s greater acceptance of marriage equality and non-discrimination. Both acknowledged that, even though the law now enables same-sex couples to be married in any state, it is still legal in most states to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Both urged that LGBT Americans stand up for the rights of LGBT people around the world.
And both took swipes at the current field of Republican presidential hopefuls. Biden got one of the biggest applause lines of the day when he said, “There are homophobes still left — most of them are running for president.” Referring to the “ridiculousness” of the GOP candidates, Clinton noted that Ben Carson said marriage equality “was the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire.”
“If any one of them, heaven forbid, were ever to be elected president, they will do their best to enact policies that will threaten you and your families,” said Clinton. “Every single Republican candidate for president is against marriage equality — every one of them. Many of them are against anti-discrimination laws. Many are against same-sex couples adopting … If you are ever in a forum with them, see if you can get them to even say the word ‘transgender.'”
Clinton Ahead In Polls
Most recent national polls show Clinton has a clear advantage over other Democrats to win the nomination. The latest poll, conducted by USA Today, found 41 percent of 430 “likely” Democratic primary and caucus voters said they would vote for Clinton, 23 percent for Sanders, 20 percent for Biden. A similar poll by the Pew Research Center found Clinton with even stronger support from “potential Democratic primary voters nationwide.” (Clinton 45, Sanders 24, Biden 8.)
But the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal polls testing individual Democratic-Republican match-ups show only Biden would, at this point, beat all four Republican frontrunners (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush). Clinton and Sanders would beat only Trump.
Biden is not likely to jump into the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate unprepared, and he still has until November to meet deadlines to participate in the key first caucuses and primaries.
While debate participants may, like their Republican counterparts, be asked one or two LGBT-related questions, Clinton’s speech was an especially important opportunity for her to lay out positions on a wide range of issues of specific concern to LGBT voters. Candidates have the luxury in the primary season to play to the party’s base – which, for Democrats, is a progressive and liberal one. But they must also be careful not to promise so much that they hobble their campaign to a more moderate general electorate, should they win the nomination. For the most part, Clinton seemed unabashed about putting herself on record, even ahead of the nationally televised debate, in support of LGBT Americans on most issues. But she did seem to be choosing her words very carefully with regard to allowing gays to adopt.
Calling discrimination against LGBT people in adoption “one of the cruelest vestiges of anti-gay bigotry,” Clinton said that, “as president, I would push to cut off federal funding for any public child welfare agency that discriminates against LGBT people.”
Most discrimination against allowing LGBT people to adopt is being conducted not by “public agencies” but, by Catholic Charities and other private, religious-based organizations. On another matter where religious-based discrimination has played out, however, Clinton has made clear that she believes Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has a legal duty to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even though Davis claims an “authority from God” prevents her from doing so. And Clinton promised, in her speech Saturday, that she would not be the sort of politician who is “courting your support at election time, and then disappearing as if your lives and your rights are just a political bargaining chip.”
“Those who know me know that’s not me,” said Clinton. “I’ve been fighting alongside you and others for equal rights and I’m just getting warmed up.”
“Your families matter to me and you matter to me,” said Clinton, closing her 25-minute speech. “I’m going to keep, as I have throughout my life, fighting for you, your rights, your children, your futures … And I am proud to be fighting right alongside you.”