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Too much, too soon': Why should they have to wait?

Published November 13, 2004

Buried in the press release about Newsweek's recent revealing series of stories on the inner workings of both presidential campaigns was a chilling anecdote.

In their special election issue, dubbed "How He Did It," the magazine offered this story: "Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the red states, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with (Sen. John) Kerry, urged the senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, "I'm not going to ever do that.' "

With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight - and an election that passed state measures against gay marriage in 11 states - Clinton's advice seems prescient to say the least. More than revealing Clinton's laser-sharp appreciation of Kerry's electoral predicament, the story may also say something about the Democrats' eventual response to the nasty drubbing they took on Election Day.

If the one successful Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years - who often boosted himself by co-opting the GOP's tactics - would advocate such an aggressive support on limiting gay marriage, the writing may well be on the wall.

A politician astute as Clinton had to know backing strictures on gay marriage wouldn't just cost Democrats a negligible gay vote. It would also cast off a good deal of the Michael Moore-style lefties - the intense progressives who voted for Nader in 2000 and were backing Kerry by a thread, mostly because he wasn't Bush.

As the few Democratic notables left standing talk conciliation and bipartisanship, capital "L" liberals - those who nod in agreement every time Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman describes possible voting irregularities in Ohio, for instance - face the real possibility of being marginalized by a party scrambling for a political center suddenly shifted even further to the right.

"Most liberals find their values in the book of Matthew, Luke and John," said Donna Brazile, former manager for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, on CNN last week. "There are a lot of liberals who are . . . going to roll up their sleeves and they're going to get out there and they're going to do the hard work that will produce victories in the future."

This from a woman who once said the pillars of the Democratic party were African-Americans, organized labor, women and homosexuals.

Most certainly, fervent liberals spent much of last week in a daze, wondering how Republicans could have managed such a complete victory, uniting cultural conservatives across religions and race in a way liberals once did on civil rights issues. But their true anger should be reserved for chastened, centrist Democrats who already seem far too willing to hang their defeat on a persecuted minority seeking a civil right of tremendous value.

"I believe (gay marriage) did energize a very conservative vote," California Sen. Diane Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It gave them a position to rally around. The whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon."

As a black man married to a white woman, I couldn't help wondering what might have happened if Americans had voted on interracial marriage back in 1968, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws against such unions were unconstitutional. According to a Gallup poll from back then, 72 percent of respondents disapproved of the idea.

I couldn't imagine someone telling me my marriage was "too much, too fast, too soon," even then.

Expecting the Democratic Party to turn its back on a minority group fighting for equality feels too much like throwing out the baby with the bathwater - parroting a prejudice voters wouldn't believe coming from the party of Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy, anyway.

There was a time when black people were told their demands for equal housing, schools and voting rights were "too much, too soon," and they turned to the courts for victories they couldn't win at the ballot box. Can anyone blame today's gay activists - with 40 years of black-focused civil rights history behind them - for an unwillingness to wait now?

[Last modified November 13, 2004, 00:50:28]

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