The opening battle in the war between 2008 Democratic presidential frontrunners Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, and Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, was surely fought the last week in February, after David Geffen--the out billionaire, entertainment mogul, and onetime friend of Bill--told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that Republicans thought Clinton was the "easiest to beat" and that she and her husband "lie with such ease it's troubling." The scorching interview was published February 21, the day after Geffen hosted a star-filled fired-raiser for Obama in Los Angeles, as he had in years past for Bill Clinton.
But now the tables had turned, and Geffen's statements triggered a rapid response from Team Hillary, which decried the "politics of personal destruction" (remember that old chestnut?) and demanded that Obama distance himself from the comments and return the $1.3 million he had raised the night before. The Illinois senator fired back that he was not involved and played up the Clintons' past relationship with Geffen (whom, it was speculated in press reports, had soured on the former first couple because Bill refused his request to pardon imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier). The dispute was the talk of Washington, Hollywood, and New York for days, and although both candidates quickly returned to playing nice, the episode was a perfect example of how heated the 2008 presidential campaign--expected to be the costliest in history and possibly the most contentious--had become.
That Clinton and Obama, both surging dramatically ahead of the six other declared Democratic candidates, were essentially fighting over a gay man uncannily foreshadowed the role that LGBT people will play in their candidacies--and the general election two Novembers from now. Although the two senators, not to mention the Republican slate of contenders, will be squaring off on many issues, foremost among them Iraq, gay people and their issues could be as meaningful as any other factor when electoral margins of victory are sometimes measured in the thousands of votes or less. After all, who could forget how expertly the Republicans exploited homophobia in 2004 to narrowly defeat John Kerry?
"The Democrats have seen the importance of LGBT issues," says Ramon Gardenhire, a political consultant and the former deputy director for LGBT outreach at the Democratic National Committee. "There are too many important issues on the table to take anything for granted."
So what does that mean, exactly? After numerous interviews with campaign staffers, consultants, activists, journalists, and others who have observed and interacted with Clinton and Obama, The Advocate pieced together the following portrait.
"They're both very strong candidates," says John Aravosis, the out editor of the uberpopular progressive AmericaBlog.com. "They are almost identical on the issues, and that's very good." Although neither supports same-sex marriage (at least not publicly), they are both in favor of civil unions and repealing "don't ask, don't tell." They also support adding sexual orientation to federal hate-crimes law and back the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been languishing in various incarnations on Capitol Hill for decades but might finally pass in this Congress, according to Aravosis and other observers.
The only point of departure is on the Defense of Marriage Act. "Obama campaigned for the Senate in 2004 saying that he was for a repeal of that law," says Aravosis, "but he hasn't recently addressed this." Clinton is also ambivalent about her previous support of DOMA, he says, and unlike Obama, carries the baggage of having supported the 1996 measure when she was first lady. "But that was 11 years ago during a much different political climate," Aravosis adds.
"We know Hillary is a tough fighter and loves a good political street fight," he says. …