03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gay Wink

Whether you're old enough to have seen the original when it aired, or if you've only caught the reruns on TV Land, most everyone has some experience with the original "Bewitched" series. With a crinkle of a magical nose and the not-out-but-flamboyant Paul Lynde playing Uncle Arthur, it was the first in a seemingly endless stream of television shows that gave a wink to their gay audiences through subtle nods.

From "Maude" to "Designing Women" to "Xena Warrior Princess," some of the most successful and lasting brands in television played directly to gay audiences, while the rest of the country was often -- but not always, particularly in more recent years--blithely oblivious to what was going on.

With Cindy McCain's "No H8" photo this week it seems that there may be a new generation of gay winking going on. She came out publicly against California's Prop 8, and stated her open support for marriage equality. No longer dodging network censors to acknowledge gay audiences, today the winking seems to come most often from political spouses whose partners have their eyes openly directed at high offices.

It happened during the 2008 campaign when Elizabeth Edwards announced her support for marriage equality, while her husband, then-presidential candidate John Edwards -- before the public revelations about their own struggles -- remained publicly opposed. Last year, Bill Clinton announced his support in contrast to Hillary's public position.

The contrast is less incongruous when it comes from the Clintons or Edwards, who have established long track records supporting a spectrum of gay civil rights issues. But John McCain is a bit more interesting because no one else is trying to have it both ways quite as brazenly as his camp seems to be.

On the one hand, Cindy's announcement softens the overall McCain brand, making it seem that there's still something of a maverick spirit in the family that doesn't simply kowtow to the base. She coupled the announcement with McCain's daughter Meghan, who has been very public in her beliefs that the Republican Party needs to modernize itself on a number of issues including gay marriage.

On the other hand, Sarah Palin, who is -- along with the rest of the Tea Party movement -- strongly opposed to marriage equality, announced yesterday that she will be campaigning in Arizona for McCain's senate re-election. The women in McCain's life are by proximity allowing him to speak out of both sides of his mouth without actually saying anything at all. (Sort of like when Rock Hudson would dance the night away with Dorris Day, simply letting the public draw their own conclusions from there.)

Now, I'm not necessarily arguing that any of these couples have had sit downs at their family dinner tables in which they decided that the non-office-holding spouse take one for the team by supporting gay marriage. It's entirely possible -- even highly probable -- that each of these people (and their office-holding spouses for that matter) is totally genuine in supporting marriage equality.

But the announcement's effect on the McCain family name -- the branding, if you will -- is undeniable. And who can blame McCain for wanting a nuanced position on marriage equality? The far right Tea Party movement, which seems to run the roost in the Republican establishment right now, is antigay to its core.

Yet Gallup Polls consistently show that the nation moves two points in favor of marriage equality with each passing year. At this point there will be full majority support for marriage in the next five years. McCain, being a smart man, knows that if he's not careful in his messaging he could be standing with the Tea Party and George Wallace on the wrong side of history by the end of the decade. But at the same time, if he doesn't play to the Tea Partiers just a little bit, there will be costs on Election Day.

The same is sort of true for Democrats, who are pulled -- though dramatically less so -- to the right by the Tea Partiers whose gravitational force seems to be creating enough drag in the country to keep the full mainstream from breaking completely for marriage equality -- for the time being.

And the time being is what's most interesting in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Will the Tea Partiers, who claim that they want straight talk from their leaders, really tolerate these gay winks, or will they acknowledge that they're fighting a senseless battle that's already been lost?

Winnie Stachelberg is the SVP for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress. Mark Shields is a Washington DC communications consultant.