Let’s begin by saying that the Democratic primary field presents an embarrassment of riches for gay voters, particularly compared to the Sahara desert of the GOP. Even that walking footnote, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has a strong case to make for support. But the main battle is between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and it’s shaping up to be a tighter contest than anyone expected.
The question is, who would be better on LGBT issues in the White House? From all the evidence, the edge goes to Clinton.
Here are five reasons why Hillary would be better than Bernie…
1. Hillary put LGBT issues front and center when she launched her campaign
2. Clinton talks about gay issues on the stump
Sanders does not. Last Sunday, Clinton told a rally in Iowa that she would push to extend LGBT rights if elected. “We all benefit when every one of our fellow human beings can live lives of purpose and meaning without being demeaned, without being discriminated against,” she said, echoing a line in her announcement speech. Sanders doesn’t raise the issue as consistently. Sure, it may feel it’s a check-the-box applause line, but at least with Clinton it’s there.
3. Clinton’s White House would be more diverse
Clinton has the most diverse campaign staff of any candidate (though not as diverse as Obama’s campaign staff), starting right at the top, with openly gay campaign manager Robby Mook. Sanders has been struggling with diversity issues, since his political circle is drawn from one of the whitest states in the country.
4. Sanders can be tone deaf
Case in point: Sanders was clearly unhappy that he did not get the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign. But did he have to declare that the Human Rights Campaign (and Planned Parenthood) were part of the “establishment”? HRC (the group, not the candidate) has been on the receiving end of a lot of fair criticism for its lack of diversity. But it is an LGBT organization, and you have to wonder when we suddenly earned the same approbation that Bernie has for Wall Street.
5. Clinton has had a trial run in the Executive Branch
The great thing about being a Senator is that you can take a stand and not have to worry about actually putting it into action. (This applies to Clinton’s Senate term as well as Sanders’.) However, we do know how Clinton can use the bully pulpit, at least at the State Department. Her impassioned speech at the United Nations arguing that LGBT rights are human rights was a landmark address. Sanders hasn’t had the same opportunity to advance a policy change, so it’s hard to judge how he would do. (In fairness, probably fine.)
None of this is to trash Sanders. He’s been a loyal supporter of LGBT issues for a long time, and he would no doubt do a good job for us if elected. You can make a good case for his bona fides, starting with the fact that he was out in front on LGBT issues when it wasn’t popular to do so, although Sanders was not quite as out-in-front on gay issues as he might like you to think.)
Nor should we glorify Clinton. Her sense of caution can lead to foot-dragging (see, marriage equality). Neither Clinton nor Sanders is going to have much luck with a Republican-controlled Congress in any case.
But ultimately the choice boils down to how much does the candidate get who we are and what is important to us. With Sanders, his support seems a reflex of his liberal inclinations. Yet his heart is clearly in another issue, economic inequality, one of the most pressing problems the nation faces, but almost to the exclusion of everything else.
There’s a reason why Sanders totally missed the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement until it smacked him the face. He has a great voting record on civil rights issues, but he doesn’t get what the issue means to those living it. The same is likely true for LGBT issues. We could count on Sanders to do the right thing (and that’s no small thing). Whether he would feel it the way we would hope is an open question. He’s never demonstrated a real understanding of identity politics.
Clinton seems to get LGBT issues in a way that Sanders doesn’t. Does she have a lot to learn? No question. But she’s made the issue more personal than Sanders has. In the end, we want to be recognized not just as a policy but also as a people.
No knock on Sanders, but the odds of that seem much higher in a Clinton presidency.