All posts by San Francisco Liberal

GAY MARRIAGE – how we get our asses kicked

(Lessons can be learned from every defeat. – promoted by SFBrianCL)

This fantastic article was written by CA-based Dem consultant Eric Jaye, an advisor to San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom.  He’s coming at this issue from a strategic position rather than from self interest (he’s straight).  With the elections coming up it seems appropriate to recirculate, as it’s very relevant.

First the profile of Eric Jaye and then the article (feel free to skip the profile).

In our ongoing “Great Debate” series, we tackle the Dem response to gay marriage. To kick off the conversation, we asked CA-based Dem consultant Eric Jaye, an advisor to San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom, to share what he’s learned.

— Jaye’s been on the frontlines on this issue, not just with Newsom, but also working against inits in places like OR and Topeka, KS. Jaye believes Dems are in a box because too many have tried to find a middle ground on this issue when voters don’t believe there is a middle ground.

— Jaye’s prescription: own up to being for gay marriage/civil unions. Turn it into a leadership issue, a la Pres. Bush model on other issues and gamble that there aren’t that many one-issue gay marriage voters that were somehow in the Dem camp. To some, Jaye’s advice might seem perfectly reasonable, to others, too risky of a gamble. But is the bigger problem for Dems that because the party itself is split, the public will always view the Dems as pro-gay marriage no matter what an individual says?

One of the Dem consultants whose on the frontlines on the gay marriage issue is Eric Jaye, founder of Storefront Political Media, a CA-based firm specializing in general consulting and media. His recent campaigns and clients include No on 36 in OR (a gay marriage ban), the MI Dem Party and Gavin Newsom for Mayor of San Francisco. Because gay marriage is among the cultural issues that many Dems believe is the cause of many of their problems, we thought it would be good to see what consultants and strategists are advising on this issue. We asked Jaye to share the advice he’s giving in column form.

Among the arguments Jaye makes on the gay marriage issue is that no campaign against a gay marriage ban is going to succeed if those campaigning against the ban are not making the case FOR “something else.” The something else, in his opinion, is gay marriage or civil unions. This is a topic Dems all over the country are wrestling with; we hope Jaye’s article starts a debate and we’re open to printing the responses from other strategists who are trying to figure out this issue.

A Democratic Strategy on Gay Marriage
by Eric Jaye

Last year the Democrats had numerous opportunities to stand on principle — and in doing so show they had the courage to stand for something. No opportunity was greater than the raging debate over gay marriage.

Facing an evenly divided electorate, Republican strategists surmised that victory in 2004 lay in driving turnout among their base voters. That’s why they placed attacks on gay marriage on state ballots in swing states. They believed that such a debate would drive turnout, particularly among low-turnout Christian evangelical voters.

What did the Democrats do? By and large they ducked, with poll-crafted drivel that made them seem like typical politicians, not courageous leaders.

Most voters do not yet support gay marriage – although support for equal matrimonial rights has risen dramatically in the past decade. Polls show a sharp generational divide, with the majority of voters under 40 in support of gay marriage and the majority of voters over 60 strongly opposed.

But in this day and age, most swing voters reserve more venom for vacillating politicians than they do for two gay people deciding to adopt the bourgeois convention of lifetime commitment and matrimony.

It is this disdain for vacillating politicians that allows President George Bush to take so many controversial stands yet still win elections for himself and his party. It’s called leadership and voters reward it.

On a woman’s right to choice, Iraq, environmental protection, outsourcing and Social Security – Bush is ‘wrong’ from a pollsters’ perspective. Yet, why does he still seem so right to so many voters?

Bush wins by being “wrong” because his controversial positions resonate as authentic. American voters don’t agree with him on key issues — but they tend to believe he “stands up for what he believes.” In a political landscape in which character matters more than ideology, Bush wins by seeming “real” to voters.

So while Bush seems authentic at the very moment he is pursuing a political ploy to excite his right-wing base – Democrats seem weak and untrustworthy – not just to their base supporters, but to the broad mass of swing voters.

With a few exceptions, most Democrats simply lack credibility when they say they oppose gay marriage. We have the honor of belonging to a party that has been on the forefront of the civil rights movement for more than 50 years. Most voters, in most states, expect us to stand for civil rights – even when these very same voters are taking a go-slow approach.

So who do we think we are fooling when we mumble finely nuanced positions on gay marriage? The truth is we are only fooling ourselves.

We have now survived an entire generation of poll-tested politicians and incremental politics. Finely crafted “agreement” messages, once an innovation, are now an invitation to ridicule. Not just late at night on television, but at almost any hour, we can all enjoy a good laugh at the expense of a politician who is merely reading from a poll-tested script.

So what’s the right answer when Democrats are asked, “Do you support gay marriage?” The right answer, in almost every case, is the truth. And in most cases, the truth is “Yes.”

First and foremost – by saying “Yes” we are standing for something, even when the majority of voters don’t yet support our position. And telling the truth makes us sound like real people, not like robo politicians. But more than this – by saying “Yes” we can seize political terrain that allows us to drive the debate, not duck it.

And we are finding that when we take the offensive on the issue of gay rights and gay marriage, we can make real progress. At the very least, we have a fighting chance when we stop ducking the issue of gay rights and start debating it with clear and concise language.

Along with a team of top-notch consultants, we worked on the successful campaign in 2004 to repeal Article 12 of the Cincinnati City Charter, which allowed discrimination against lesbian and gays. Just this month we helped defeat the Topeka City Question in Topeka, Kansas that would have allowed discrimination against gays. Both campaigns were played out in the context over the debate on gay marriage.

Last year, as former consultants to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, we were closely involved in presenting the “winter of love” gay marriages to the public. We were also part of the unsuccessful effort in Oregon in 2004 to defeat the attack on gay marriage.

We took away from those successes, and that failure, the belief that when it comes to gay marriage the simple truth is better than a complicated lie.

But more than that – in the long run we can’t win if we don’t debate. And let’s not fool ourselves, this debate is not going away. The Republicans put it on the agenda, and they will keep it there, particularly so long as we refuse to even articulate our own position.

Cautious Democrats should face the fact that no position on gay marriage is the weakest possible stance. Silence is read as support for gay marriage. And your silence is seen as political at best, cowardice at worst. As a party, we might not have chosen this fight. But it is here. Unilateral surrender is not a workable strategy.

And to my fellow consultants I would offer this hard-learned lesson. Anti-gay marriage amendments are being fought on the basis of gay marriage — not some “hidden flaw” or “costly consequence.” These measures are not analogous to some down-ballot initiative that we can define. Voters know what they are about — gay marriage.

In California, we found during the San Francisco gay marriage insurrection that support for gay marriage increased slightly across the state, and support for civil unions increased dramatically, after we captured the airwaves with images of couples who were absolutely unremarkable in any way other than in their desire to profess life-long love and responsibility for each other.

First in Cincinnati, and then in Topeka, we won campaigns against discrimination in part by seizing the language of morality, rather than ceding it to our opponents.

We crafted mail pieces entitled “Not Just on Sunday,” and “Daily Bread,” that took up the language of the Lord’s Prayer in defense of tolerance and equal rights every day.

We didn’t hide from the issue. We didn’t run from the moral debate. We embraced it – and won. Democrats around the country have nothing to lose, and so much to gain, from doing likewise.