When virtually the entire field of Democratic presidential candidates takes to the stage in Hollywood for another forum on Thursday, they will be doing what none of their predecessors have ever done.
Live on TV, they will be talking solely about gay issues.
Organizers of the event, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Viacom’s Logo cable network, are quick to note its historic importance, even from four years ago, when a similar gathering drew scant coverage on C-SPAN. All of the Democratic candidates have agreed to attend except Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, each of whom cited scheduling conflicts.
“Simply seeing the candidates step on a stage to speak to a national gay television audience may be as moving as anything they say,” said Brian Graden, president, entertainment of MTV Networks Music Group and the president of Logo.
Yet even with the national exposure, there are still concerns that the 2008 race will devolve into a replay of 2004, when so-called “wedge” issues like gay marriage were widely believed to have driven religious conservatives to the polls.
The event, to be held at the Production Group studios in Hollywood, will be moderated by Bloomberg News’ Margaret Carlson and include a panel of HRC president Joe Solmonese, Washington Post editorial page writer Jonathan Capeheart and singer Melissa Etheridge. The candidates will not be on the stage together, but will answer questions separately in what organizers hope will produce a more conversational style than in past debates.
The panelists are expected to cover a range of issues, including marriage equality, workplace discrimination, military service, HIV/AIDS funding and hate crimes legislation.
Carlson believes that “wedge” issues have been neutralized a bit as acceptance of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community grows. And according to Graden, that is borne out in recent MTV research.
“For the right wing, in this election season, to attack our community, I think they are going to do that at their own peril,” Solmonese said. “The meter of public opinion is moving in our direction, and this is not an election cycle where voters are going to put up with an interest group using some group of people as a wedge, in order to turn attention away from issues that are really important in this election.”
Political consultant Chad Griffin, who is raising money for Hillary Clinton, notes that in contrast to previous presidential campaigns such issues are “being considered in a much more significant way, higher up on the priority list.”
The entertainment industry’s gay community already has played a visible role in various campaigns, primarily as high-profile supporters and donors. David Geffen backs Barack Obama. Director Roland Emmerich hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton at his home. Skip Paul is a major backer of John Edwards.
And candidates also are tying their visit with a number of post-forum events, in part aimed at gay donors. Clinton is scheduled to stop by at a viewing party at the Abbey, what could be considered ground zero of West Hollywood’s gay community. Obama will be appearing nearby at Area nightclub, a celebrity hangout on La Cienega Boulevard with the likes of Jessica Biel, Sharon Stone and Master P expected. Edwards will be just down the street at Republic Restaurant and Lounge. And Dennis Kucinich has an event scheduled at Circus Disco on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Some leaders in the gay community, however, are not in such a celebratory mood.
Although invitations were extended to John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, none of them has agreed to a similar debate.
Last week, Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrote an op-ed that so far in the 2008 race, “things don’t look all that good.”
“It’s déjà vu all over again — the GOP often slyly and sometimes audaciously whips us for political gain. The Democrats include us — sorta — but only in response to a direct question and typically in the language of careful legislative reform.”
Of the Democratic candidates, only longshots Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel are for gay marriage, according to a recent checklist that each campaign filled out for HRC.
How important will that be? Among some gay donors, there is a sense of not pressing the issue too hard, for fear of inciting religious conservatives in the way that they mobilized after San Francisco’s same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2004.
Initiatives restricting same-sex unions are possible ballot measures next year in Florida and California. But Solmonese believes that with the Democratic Congress, and a focus on the war in Iraq, gay rights groups will not be on the defensive in the coming election.
“We are now in a position to really fight in a proactive way and to really move forward on a number of issues,” he said.
What’s more, the entire field of Democratic contenders does back civil unions, along with a host of other issues on the HRC list, including bills to prohibit job discrimination and to prevent bans on adoption. All also back a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
“I think the LBGT community is very practical and realizes that the majority of the American public is not quite there with marriage, and is quite comfortable with where the candidates are on the issues now,” Griffin said. “Although many of us would prefer marriage to be law, they do hold positions we would be proud of.”
In an historical sidelight, recently uncovered memos from the Nixon administration show one of the president’s aides searching desperately for any video of Democrats talking about a “gay lib” plank in 1972, as a weapon to use against George McGovern in middle America.
They won’t have to search this year. The question is whether any candidate will want to use it.