political suicide note
As a candidate for President, there are certain things that John Kerry can't say.
But I can.
face it. There are certain things you can't say in politics, especially if you
want to be elected President of the United States. We might get tired of
politicians taking boring, middle-of-the-road positions on controversial issues.
But do we really want it any other way?
Take John Kerry. From a progressive perspective, he's no Paul Wellstone. Then
again, the candidate in the race who is politically closest to the late, great
is Dennis Kucinich – and Kucinich has never been a contender. Having emerged
from a closely fought Democratic primary, Kerry needs to beat Bush by focusing
on core issues like health care, security, and the economy, without being drawn
into wedge-issue debates.
But just because John Kerry can't take strong stances on dicey topics, it does
not mean that these stances aren't right. Since I am not running for President,
let me take this opportunity to offer my political suicide note. Whether talking
about gay marriage, due process for accused terrorists, or socialized medicine,
I can say what Kerry can't.
Like many politicians, Kerry takes what the Associated Press charitably
describes as a “carefully crafted” position on the issue of gay marriage. The
wire service explains that the Senator “personally opposes gay marriage, prefers
civil unions, and rejects any state or federal legislation that could be used to
eliminate equal protections for homosexuals or other forms of recognition like
It is nice that Kerry recognizes the importance of partnership rights for same-sex
couples, like access to pensions, health insurance, and hospital visitation
privileges. But when Kerry then seeks political cover by saying, “I believe
marriage is between a man and a woman” and arguing that “the issue of marriage
should be left to the states,” it's pretty weak.
In no need of political cover myself, I'm happy to promote gay marriage. If the
institution of marriage can withstand a divorce rate among its heterosexual
participants that hovers around 50%, plus annulled farces like Britney Spears'
nuptial extravaganza, surely it can handle some committed gay and lesbian
couples taking the plunge.
In a culture still rife with homophobia, marriage for gay and lesbian couples
should be backed by federal protections that will ensure family reunification
immigration benefits and that will keep couples in more conservative parts of
the country from suffering discrimination. Unless the government gets out of the
marriage business altogether and starts granting civil unions to all desiring
couples, whether or not they are straight, these unions will keep gays and
lesbians in a separate-and-not-equal category. John Kerry himself has noted the
“echoes of the discussion of interracial marriage a generation ago” in current
However, even though standing up for gay marriage is the right thing to do, John
Kerry is not the person to do it. The Senator has correctly observed that
President Bush has proposed a constitutional amendment on marriage precisely
because of its divisiveness. “This President can't talk about jobs. He can't
talk about health care,” Kerry says. “He can't talk about a foreign policy,
which has driven away allies and weakened the United States, so he is looking
for a wedge issue to divide the American people.”
In order to win, Kerry needs to pick his battles. Gay marriage is not the one to
pick. That's not cynicism. It's reality.
To take another
example, looking soft on terrorists is rarely something that helps your
political career. Back when Howard Dean was the front runner for the Democratic
nomination, he received a lot of criticism for saying that we shouldn't prejudge
Osama bin Laden's guilt for 9/11 – that judgment should be left to the justice
”What in the world
were you thinking?” asked John Kerry in a subsequent debate. And the Senator
was right. It was hardly the time and the place for Dean to take that stand.
As for me, someone who is not in the heat of a political campaign, I have little
hesitation in declaring that even accused terrorists deserve fair treatment
under the law. This is especially true in light of shocking accusations about
the abuse of detainees held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
In March, British citizen Jamal al-Harith was released after two years of
having never been charged with a crime. In interviews with The Mirror of
London and with the BBC, the former detainee told of being shackled for
upwards of 15 hours at a time and being beaten by guards in riot gear. He
claimed that “religiously devout detainees” were forced to watch as prostitutes
“touched their own naked bodies.”
That type of morally repellant treatment clearly violates the better traditions
of American due process. As progressives, we need to draw attention to charges
of human rights abuse at Guantanamo Bay. We shouldn't expect Kerry to do it for
us, however. We have reason to hope that, after he gets elected, Kerry will
prove more susceptible to pressure on the issue than Bush. For that to matter,
he needs to get elected first.
The list goes on. I'm in favor of “socialized medicine” – a single-payer health
care system – not only because healthcare is a human right, but also because the
skyrocketing costs of the private health insurance system is making American
businesses increasingly uncompetitive. But I appreciate the fact that Kerry's
$90 billion health care plan was one of the better proposals to emerge from the
Democratic pack. He will have a hell of a time getting even this limited, for-profit
plan through Congress.
Acknowledging the realities of mainstream American politics doesn't mean
abandoning your principles. It means acting more effectively and strategically.
While there are wedge issues where Kerry should stand on pragmatism rather than
on principle, there are other issues where activists are justified in pushing
for a more progressive stance.
One such issue is the Iraq War. Kerry's timidity in challenging Bush's elective
invasion and disastrous occupation represents a missed opportunity for his
campaign. Instead of calling out the President on how the Iraq War left al Qaeda
untouched and spread anti-American resentment, Kerry sticks to the safest
margins of the issue. He charges that Bush failed to “exhaust the remedies of
inspections,” and he proposes sending 40,000 more troops to Iraq. That's hardly
a recipe for leading an emboldened Democratic Party in taking up the charges of
insiders like Richard Clarke and denouncing the White House's botched war on
terror. Kerry should be slamming Bush for taking advice from neoconservative
ideologues rather than counter-terrorism experts, and for making the world a
more dangerous place.
Iraq aside, having gone on the record in defense of gay marriage, the rights of
accused terrorists, and socialized medicine, I think that – like Kucinich – I'm
pretty much dead politically, at least for this election season. I'm glad to say
that Kerry isn't.
It feels good to be right. But I'd also like to see us win.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via
the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this
article provided by Jason Rowe.