Let's 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 late, great Senator from Minnesota 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 civil unions."
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' drunken 55-hour Las Vegas 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 debates.
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 judgement should be left to the justice system.
"What in the world were you thinking?" asked John Kerry in a subsequent debate. And the Senator from Massachusetts 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 US military at Guantanamo Bay.
In March, British citizen Jamal al-Harith was released after two years of captivity at Guantanamo, 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 health care 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.