Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Visible Vote

I'm going to live-blog the Visible Vote forum that LOGO and HRC are hosting. All of the Democratic candidates - excepting Biden and Dodd - will be appearing to discuss issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. I've also submitted some questions, mainly at the intersection of health policy and LGBT rights. But my guess is they're a bit on the wonkish side for a general debate.

The hosts: Journalist Jonathan Capehart, singer Melissa Etheridge, and HRC President Joe Solmonese. You can stream the debate live here.

Obama is up first.

9:06 PM - Obama draws an analogy between the outsider status he has often confronted due to his racial and ethnic heritage and the marginality faced by LGBT people. He argues strongly from anti-discrimination/civil rights framework for civil unions that are legally equivalent to marriage. He wants to leave marriage up to individual religious denominations. One of the panelists presses this - what about civil marriage?

9:08 PM - Obama just concern trolled the gays. He said they should choose their battles, and maybe the lack of access to civil marriage isn't the one they should focus on. He also said that whether or not civil marriage was available to same-sex couples was mostly a semantic issue. That does not sit well here. He actually comes of as dismissive and patronizing.

9:15 PM- One of the hosts, Mr. Capehart, raises the issue of homophobia in the black community. Barack responds that he has previously addressed to black audiences the impediment that homophobia has raised in adequately responding to the crisis of AIDS amongst black Americans. He also laments the use of homophobia to fragment progressive alliances between blacks and LGBT people. He is very good on this issue. His answer is very thoughtful and considered. I believe him when he says he will advocate for LGBT people not solely when he's on the burner before America's wealthiest gay rights group.

9:22 PM - Edwards steps up to the plate. I've previously blogged (quite unfavorably) on his discursive representation of LGBT people in public debates. Let's see how he does tonight.

9:24 PM - Melissa Etheridge has a great moment where she touches on the solidarity she feels with Elizabeth Edwards in their mutual struggle with cancer. She pivots from there to the incredible privilege she and Edwards share in being able to afford their expensive treatments. She asks if Edwards understands that the health care crisis hits LGBT people especially hard given that they cannot depend on employers and spouses to provide health care for them like most Americans.

Edwards answer is okay, but not impressive. He plugs his universal health care plan. Then he discusses his empathy for the large portion of LGBT people who are homeless as a result of discrimination. He does touch on an actual answer - between his stances on civil unions and his universal health care plan he'd see the problem addressed. He doesn't seem to have much to say about LGBT health at all, and is instead trying to soundbite on as many issues as possible.

9:29 PM - Edwards states, albeit equivocally, that he would support education about sexuality in public schools that emphasizes the naturalness of homosexuality and the need for tolerance. He comes across as empathetic, but admits he hasn't thought through the specific policy issues involved. It shows.

9:31 PM - Why, oh why, has Edwards spent the past three minutes talking about Anne Coulter?

9:33 PM - Edwards takes the first transgender specific question of the night - how would he react to the knowledge that one of his staffer was trans-identified and planning to transition? Edwards replies that he would be tolerant and as supportive as he could be (fair enough), and expresses his support for a transgender inclusive federal ENDA. This is his strongest answer yet.

9:35 PM - Edwards is finally taking on the marraige question. He says that he cannot impose religious views, that he believes in equality to his core and that he can understand why anything short of full equality before the law will be seen as a sleight to the LGBT community. But he doesn't give a direct justification for his policy. So he is asked for one, in a question that strongly indicts his "I'm on a journey" crap. His answer... is that Don't Ask Don't Tell ought to be repealed. Very disappointing.

9:41 PM - Kucinich takes the stage to the warmest welcome of the night. Right away Capehart points out that Kucinich seems to stand with the LGBT community on every issue. He then asks Kucinich why he stands in such a minority amongst candidates in his support for same-sex marriage. His response, simply, is that he stands for true equality. Capehart takes this and runs - is Kucinich saying that Obama and Edwards, who speak for equality as well, have jettisonned the LGBT community for political reasons. Kucinich takes the high-road and doesn't endorse Capehart's theory, but he gives a great answer on the role the federal government can play as an agent for social change.

9:47 PM - Kucinich is still getting a lot of flattery. The moderator calls him "evolved." Kucinich accepts the compliment. He says his role is to help all Americans "evolve" with him. He also emphasizes that his path is easy - he just has to listen to LGBT people and then act. They are the ones who have to struggle courageously with discrimination. How can he not help them? Kucinich understands solidarity, I'll say that.

9:49 PM - Are you serious? I guess this can't be a cakewalk the whole time, so Etheridge (after endorsing Kucinich's candidacy to his face) throws him a question on medicinal marijuana, citing the pain caused by AIDS and cancer in the gay and lesbian communities. Kucinich says - yes. He does not waffle. Just, yes - as a matter of compassion our approach to marijuana should be informed primarily by health policy not criminal justice. He also plugs his health care plan: the only universal single payer health care plan proposed by a candidate, the only one that is not-for -profit. Nice, but he sure swallowed a heck of a soundbite on the pot question.

9:52 PM - The panelists seem to concede that Kucinich can't win this as much as they'd like him to. They ask if he is electable. Kucinich is giving a terrific answer. He replies that middle America does believe in tolerance and equality. He'd like to lead that America, but at the same time his candidacy is not just about representation - it's also about transformation. He is trying to transform and persuade even as he positions himself for the White House.

9:54 PM - Now Kucinich gets the wonkiest question of the night: will he make HIV/AIDS prevention funding part of Ryan White? For those not in the know, Ryan White Care Act is the source of most federal funding to care for people living with HIV/AIDS but does not cover preventative care. Kucinich says he would advocate for that. Succinct, but he doesn't seem prepared to talk in detail about Ryan White, so he just talks about health care generally for awhile. Not a stellar answer.

9:59 PM - Kucinich's closing remarks are very eloquent. He talks about love and his wife, transformation and equality. I'd like to point out that Kucinich is the candidate who has talked least about "tolerance." He never uses the word. He talks about equality a lot, love almost as much and occasionally uses the word justice. But he is not talking about tolerance. It does not seem rehearsed, he just seems to be past that point. I'm consistently impressed by this man, and tonight is no exception.

10:05 PM - Now Gravel is on. He gets a question about how, as a member of his generation, he talks about his support for LGBT rights generally and same-sex marriage specifically. He answers that most of his generation is wrong, and in time the issue will not be one.
Gravel blames demagogues for dividing America on marriage equality. He thinks most Americans, if they followed their sense of fairness, would support marriage.

10:08 PM - Interesting and ballsy: Gravel calls out LGBT voters for supporting people like Clinton and Obama when candidates like himself and Kucinich are doing the hard work on LGBT issues. Point taken, sir.

10:10 PM - Capehart turns the blade at Gravel: Why aren't you as popular as Clinton and Obama with LGBT voters? Gravel seems to backtrack and acknowledge that there is a political liability that he does take on by supporting LGBT equality. And he says he does not want the support of Democrats who are not willing to take on that liability as a show of solidarity.

10:13 PM - Gravel has talked a lot about politics and public opinion. This is working against him because he isn't getting to talk much about the range of issues that Edwards and Obama did. He comes off as committed, but not particularly informed.

10:14 PM - Gravel is talking about nuclear testing in the Pacific? He's also kind of being a dick to Joe Solmonese, but that's probably okay since no LGBT activist worth their rainbow stripes actually likes the HRC.

10:17 PM - So now Gravel is giving a great schpeel on the prison system, the war on drugs and de-criminalization. It's decent enough... but unfortunately the question was about HIV/AIDS in the inner cities. Not particularly convincing.

10:19 PM - Now it's Richardson's turn.

10:22 PM - Richardson's "concern troll" is a lot more convincing than Obama's. He talks about using winnable battles against hate crimes, against No Child Left Behind (which he points out hurts good sexuality education and anti-bullying work). But he emphasizes using these battles to build the community of allies concerned with LGBT support and to transform public consciousness. He sounds like a realist, where Obama and Edwards just sounded evasive.

10:25 PM - Richardson apologizes the "miracon" gaffe, and minimizes. He wants to talk about his record, which is impressive (pioneering support for transgender rights, working against hate crimes, and moving aggressively for domestic partnerships and against DOMA). He is tremendously focused on talking about (1) what political goals are achievable for LGBT issues, (2) what his political record is and (3) how the community can move forward.

10:28 PM - Now Richardson takes a hypothetical: if you could sign a marriage act into law, would you? This is a great question because it challenges Richardson's position, which is the "achievable" bit keeping his own stances out of the picture. He dodges a lot, before finally saying that he isn't "there yet." Saw that coming. I think Richardson still comes off great. He admits that he isn't there, but neither are most Americans. And he seems to have really thought about how he will transform American politics for LGBT people. He has a plan.

10:31 PM - Interesting. Richardson says at first that homosexuality is a choice. Then he waffles. But his answer, that he continues forward with, is that categories don't matter. LGBT people are people, and whether they have chosen, been acculturated, or been born a certain way then they should not give up their rights. I agree. But I also agree with Etheridge's answer that it is alienating for LGBT people to be told that they have chosen their identity when their personal narrative reads otherwise. When pressed, Richardson makes it clear that he is about politics, not identity. He can't say what homosexuality is like, or what being transgender is like - but he can offer political protection. This is actually where I stand as well. There is no need to define identity to make a political coalition. I respect a man who demures from doing so, especially when he has the humility not to define the identities of others.

10:36 PM - And here comes Clinton, closing out the show.

10:38 PM - Mr. Solmonese asks why Clinton has never introduced legislation against Don't Ask Don't Tell, being a vocal advocate against it for so long and given her place on the Senate committee working on military issues. She basically answers that the political climate is wrong and we need an executive branch that will accommodate the change (or at least not veto the bill).

10:42 PM - Clinton isn't against same-sex marriage, she's just really for civil unions. Ick. She says equality matters, and civil unions can provide full equality. She wants states to make decisions. But she is personally against same-sex marriage. Her position is much like Edwards and Obama's: she doesn't have a plan to provide justice for LGBT people, but she sees the country moving in that direction and will not obstruct that movement. But she is herself unwilling to take the position (and political risk herself).

10:45 PM - Clinton says the states are better battlegrounds for LGBT people than the federal governments. I'd agree if so many states hadn't explicitly repudiated that hypothesis with bblatantly discriminatory statutes last November.

10:47 PM - Next to Kucinich, Hilary is doing the best job of answering the questions she is asked. But her discussions is kind of wonky, she talks a lot about the powers that be - not the powers the she will use and the moves she'd like to make for LGBT people. She also isn't talking much about her record, other than emphasizing her record with HRC (oh boy). She is coming off as a political advisor and something of a political historian even. In apologizing for the conditions facing LGBT people now she gives phenomenally informed answers on why their legal position is the way it is. But she seems lacking on vision, on a gameplan, and on a record. She understands the political waters, but doesn't know where she wants to swim.

10:50 PM - Clinton says she wants to reverse the "mean-spirited assault" political assault on LGBT people. Other than that, she doesn't seem to have much to offer.

Commentary: I loved the format. Very intimate, like a conversation. Questioners could follow-up easily, and answers were lengthier. The answers were even more substantive, where the candidates wanted them to be. I applaud the planners for that. I really feel like I know where each candidate stands.

Kucinich was clearly the star of the evening. Richardson would be my second - he isn't on my page on all the issues, but I know exactly what he'd do for me as a gay citizen were he to sit in the White House. Obama performed well when talking about race, AIDS and progressive coalitions. But his answers on marriage were nearly offensive. Gravel was alternatively solid and way off topic. Clinton just didn't seem to have much to say other than that she wanted to support LGBT people but needed to change the political climate to do that effectively. Edwards was awful.

There's an exit poll on the LOGO site seeing how people felt. I'd expect to see it swing a bit now that the debate has ended. But here's the breakdown:

Question: Who's your candidate?

1. Barack Obama (37%) - My 2nd choice candidate, 3rd best performance tonight
2. Dennis Kucinich (24%) - My 1st choice candidate, 1st best performance tonight
3. Hilary Clinton (19%) - My 4th choice candidate, 5th best performance tonight
4. John Edwards (9%) - My 5th choice candidate, worst performance tonight
5. Bill Richardson (5%) - My 3rd choice candidate, 2nd best performance tonight
6. Mike Gravel (4%) - My 6th choice candidate, 4th best performance tonight

Question: What's your issue:

1. LGBT Rights (40%) - my 2nd choice out of the poll
2. Health Care (31%) - my 1st choice out of the poll (and 1st overall in this election)
3. Gay Marriage (29%) - my 3rd choice out of the poll (and important overall, though I'd be hard pressed to rank it precisely)

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