LGBT issues did not figure prominently during the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, but some candidates — including Hillary Clinton in her widely praised performance — sought to weave support for the LGBT community into their responses, drawing a key contrast between them and their Republican counterparts.
Only once did LGBT rights get framed as part of a question: When moderator and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper noted Clinton’s changes in positions, including same-sex marriage, and asked whether she’ll say anything to get elected.
“Well, actually, I have been very consistent,” Clinton replied. “Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world.”
Additionally, the former secretary of state enumerated “continuing discrimination against the LGBT community” as among the divides in the country she would seek to heal upon taking office.
Clinton won applause from the audience after former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he wouldn’t back down from his criticism of her email controversy and went further to raise concerns about America’s credibility. Asked if she had a response, Clinton had a one-word answer: “No.”
Besides Clinton, two other candidates on stage also expressed support for LGBT rights, although the reviews overall for their debate performances were dismal compared to Clinton’s.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley bookended his debate performance with declarations of support for LGBT rights. In his opening statement, O’Malley identified passage of marriage equality in his state as among his accomplishments. In his closing statement, O’Malley said young people under 30 being unwilling to deny rights to gay couples or bash immigrants “tells me we are moving to a more connected, generous and compassionate place.”
Chafee cited his early support as a Republican for same-sex marriage as evidence he’s a “block of granite” in terms of consistency on the issues (although that image was undermined when he explained away his vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall banking law in 1999 by saying “it was my very first vote” in the U.S. Senate).
U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t mention LGBT issues and instead largely stuck to his mantra of combatting income inequality and Wall Street corruption. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) also didn’t bring up LGBT issues and stood out from fellow Democrats by opposing the Iran deal, expressing skepticism about gun safety laws and declining to embrace Black Lives Matter.
Although he’s considering a presidential bid, Vice President Joseph Biden has yet to announce whether he will enter the 2016 field and didn’t make an appearance on stage. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a Democratic candidate who sought LGBT help in appearing on stage via an interview with the Washington Blade, didn’t meet the standards to qualify for the debate.
By voicing support for LGBT rights, the Democratic slate drew a contrast between themselves and Republican opponents who’ve used the debate stage to oppose LGBT rights.
During the second debate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took the opportunity to say he agrees with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in his support for Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who defied the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage and was jailed for her actions.
Huckabee during the first Republican debate expressed opposition to openly transgender military service and called it a social experiment. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pledged executive action on religious liberty seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.
Lane Hudson, a gay D.C. Democratic activist and member of the Hillary for America Finance Committee, praised Clinton for her forward-looking remarks on LGBT issues.
“Hillary was the only candidate on the stage that showed an understanding of the challenges that continue to face the LGBT community,” Hudson said. “That’s because she’s got LGBT people at all levels of her staff and advisers. We are all focused on moving America forward while the Republican Party is focused on the past. LGBT folks can decide which party they want to be a part of, the one looking to the future or the one looking to the past.”
Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy and government Affairs for the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, said in a statement her organization welcomes the candidates’ comments on LGBT issues — as well as issues facing other minority communities — but said more specifics are needed.
“While some candidates did specifically reference LGBTQ people and #BlackLivesMatter, we eagerly await the candidates’ discussion of specific policy issues at the next debate such as the need for strong and explicit federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people,” Long Simmons said.