Politicians do two things better than anything else. The first is they are masters at saying whatever it takes to get elected. The second is they obsessively crunch numbers; and the only number that counts is the number of votes they can get to put them over the top. These two crass and cynical talents of politicians aren't mutually exclusive. Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama is a fast study of a well-meaning politician that's cultivating those talents.
The Donnie McClurkin flap is a virtual textbook example of that. When this writer called Obama out on his scheduled October 28 South Carolina gospel tour appearance with the Grammy winning, anti-gay morals crusader, Obama snapped back with a public statement hotly insisting that he's a staunch opponent of homophobia and that he vehemently disagreed with McClurkin's views. He probably means it. He's been the paragon of political correctness on gay issues in press statements, and in his campaign stump speeches. But Obama is a politician. It would look awful strange for him as a liberal, and a self-professed change America, consensus guy to say and do anything else. That goes hand in hand with the second thing politician Obama has mastered, counting votes. When it comes to getting those crucial votes, flowery statements and speeches on tolerance mean little.
Obama has looked hard at the numbers in South Carolina and elsewhere, and knows that there are a lot of socially conservative blacks who loathe gay marriage and any talk of gay rights. Their numbers have not budged one inch downward in the past decade. In 1996, 65 percent of blacks were opposed to gay marriage. A decade later a Pew Forum poll found that 64 percent of blacks still vehemently opposed it. While the opposition to same-sex marriage among blacks is frozen in time, white and Latino opposition to it has dropped. The only other group whose disdain for gay marriage hasn't budged an inch downward is the hard line evangelicals.
Put the words black, evangelical, and voter together and it translates out to thousands of potential voters ripe for an overt or subtle tap of anti-gay sentiment. South Carolina is the first big state primary, and blacks make up nearly fifty percent of Democratic voters in the state. A good chunk of them are evangelical leaning. Their votes can make or break Obama's national efforts. McClurkin can help, and help him in a big way. He's black, popular, and an outspoken evangelical. Obama can have it both ways with him. He can publicly denounce his views, which he has, while latching onto to his crowd-pulling coat tails.
The South Carolina saga is no aberration when it comes to a politician reading the evangelical political tea leafs. The first big warning sign that the issue of gay rights could inflame, polarize and even energize blacks within and without the black pulpit came in October, 2003. At a tightly packed press conference, five of Michigan's top black prelates publicly called on the state legislature to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The subsequent ballot measure passed and more than fifty percent of blacks backed it.
That touched off bells and whistles among GOP strategists. They knew that they had hit the political jackpot. Gay bashing could gain a few more black votes for the GOP, soften black support for the Democrats, and all without the risk of alienating core white conservative Republicans. The Massachusetts court ruling in November 2003 upholding gay marriage was even more cause for euphoria by GOP strategists who were working overtime to hammer down the blooming alliance with black evangelicals. A Pew Research Poll taken right after the court decision found that far more blacks than whites sharply disagreed with the court's decision.
Bush capitalized on that sentiment and of course the rest is bitter history. But the gay bash card has lain tantalizingly on the political table since the 2004 election and it can be played by any politician seeking votes among conservatives. Democrats do not dare play the card the same crude, naked bigoted way that some Republicans played it. That would ignite howls of hypocrisy and alienate party liberals. In fact, it's almost laughable to hear the tortured gyrations that blind faith Obama backers go through to justify his flirt with McClurkin. If Republican presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or Mitt Romney had publicly hyped an appearance with a very public gay basher, they'd scream bloody murder. But Obama did just that and he gets a free pass. Amazing!
While Obama will publicly say and do the right thing in condemning homophobia through the front door, the temptation to cash in on it through the back door is evidently just too irresistible. It's crass, cynical, but it's politics baby pure and simple. And that's all the more reason to keep the heat on Obama to dump McClurkin.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is
The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press). firstname.lastname@example.org