In May, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was supposed to be one of those light interviews where the candidate gets time in front of a wider audience without having to confront the hardball questions of a Sunday morning talk show such as Meet the Press.
But the appearance came just a week after the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and DeGeneres, an openly gay talk-show host planning to wed her longtime girlfriend, was bound to bring the subject up. When she did, McCain reiterated his position that marriage should be between a man and a woman. DeGeneres pressed him. "You're no different than I am," she said. "Our love is the same." But McCain stuck to his position.
The daytime standoff was one of those unique moments in the campaign, demonstrating that some issues are forced on politicians by society and popular culture. McCain, to be sure, was on foreign terrain--a conservative Republican making a campaign stop in liberal Hollywood. But his opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama, technically speaking, has the same position on the issue. Obama is personally opposed to same-sex marriage.
In the details of the two men's stances, however, the differences are wide. Moreover, gay-and-lesbian rights and abortion are probably the hottest-button social issues that the two candidates must confront, even though their political advisers are surely telling them that most voters would rather hear about bread-and-butter issues such as health care and the economy.
Indeed, the churn in state legislatures and the courts on these issues virtually guarantees that they will come up in presidential campaigns every four years. Same-sex marriage surfaced as an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians had the right to marry. This year the California Supreme Court's decision put the issue back on the campaign front burner.
Obama wrote a letter in June to a California gay-rights group saying he opposes amending the state's constitution, or the federal Constitution, to ban gay marriage. McCain has said he supports California Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage, although he voted against the federal marriage amendment in 2006, a proposed constitutional measure defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Indeed, both candidates opposed the federal marriage amendment. But gay-rights forces are not ready to give McCain credit for his stance. "While he calls himself a maverick and voted against the federal marriage amendment, he did so citing that it was an issue best left to the states," says Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, whose group has endorsed Obama. "And at the same time he came out in full support of a marriage ban that was being fought out in his home state of Arizona." In fact, social conservatives who supported the federal marriage amendment remain hopeful that McCain could still support some type of federal action on the issue. "McCain is not irrevocably committed to opposing it. He has always said that if he believes it's necessary, he would support it," says Maggie Gallagher, who heads the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Gallagher points to the Supreme Court as a reason to support McCain on this issue. She fears that the high court could rule the way state courts in California and Massachusetts have, and she thinks that gay-rights supporters are waiting for the composition of the Court to change so that they can push for federal protections for same-sex marriage. "Right now I believe [that gay-marriage proponents] lack the fifth vote to create a national constitutional right to gay marriage.... I think we're only one justice away from that, and I think Obama intends to appoint one," she says. "I don't think the judges appointed by McCain are going to upend history in order to create something that's plainly not in the [constitutional] text."
On other gay-rights issues, McCain and Obama part ways. Obama supports the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and believes that gay men and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. McCain favors the current policy. Obama supports broadening the federal definition of hate crimes to include people targeted for their sexual orientation. McCain opposes efforts to expand the statute.
Obama sponsored a bill outlawing job and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation when he was in the Illinois state Senate, and he is a strong supporter of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill, dubbed ENDA, has long been a top priority for gay-rights advocates and could have a strong chance of getting signed into law if Obama is elected along with a Democratic majority in Congress.
In addition to legislative priorities, both gay-rights and social-conservative forces watch symbolic gestures. As part of his debut in the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama mentioned gays during his keynote address. And Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, praises Obama for his willingness to talk about gay rights in front of any audience. "If Barack Obama is at a Democratic convention and he talks about inclusion of LGBT Americans, you could call it preaching to the choir. But when he goes into African-American churches and says the same thing, you couldn't call that preaching to the choir."
Gay-and-lesbian-rights groups generally do not view McCain as an anti-gay crusader. Solmonese says of McCain, "When you contrast him with someone like [GOP primary candidates] Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, his rhetoric certainly does not include attacks on LGBT Americans. But as we saw with [President Bush], while his rhetoric was certainly not divisive in that first race, once he became president there was the right wing of the Republican Party to whom I think he felt he needed to be accountable."
McCain is trying to appeal to independents at the same time that he's trying to shore up support from the party's conservative base. Social conservatives, for whom the sanctity of marriage and the elimination of abortion are top issues, have viewed McCain skeptically ever since he denounced Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" during his 2000 campaign. More recently, McCain has aggressively tried to mend fences with the Religious Right.
Gary Bauer is one social-conservative leader who staunchly supports McCain. "There are times when he and I disagree, but I feel like he's a good conservative on a range of issues," Bauer says. "On the values issues, he's got a pro-life voting record." Many social conservatives applaud McCain for consistently opposing abortion. In 1999, he raised some eyebrows by suggesting in an interview that he would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally. But since that time, he has said he would like to see the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision overturned, and he declares so explicitly on his campaign's website.
Conservatives applauded McCain's votes to confirm Bush nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and his promise to nominate judges in that mold as president. In 2004, McCain voted for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a federal crime to injure a fetus while committing another violent federal crime. He also voted for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which forbids a late-term abortion procedure. When the Supreme Court upheld the law in Gonzales v. Carhart in 2007, McCain called the ruling "a victory for those who cherish the sanctity of life." Obama sharply criticized the decision.
McCain also voted against an amendment in 2005 to repeal the "Mexico City policy," which bans federally funded international family-planning clinics from using their own money to provide abortion services or counseling. Obama, who co-sponsored a 2007 version of the amendment, promises to repeal the policy as president. In 2006, McCain voted to make it a crime for anyone other than a parent to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion without the minor's parental consent. Obama voted against the bill, which passed both chambers but died when senators prevented it from being sent to a House-Senate conference committee.
"[Obama's] approach on abortion--acknowledging the complexity, reducing the need, and protecting the right--is the new politics on abortion."
David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, says that a President McCain would preserve "pro-life gains that have been made in the past administration," mentioning the Mexico City policy and the ban on "partial-birth" abortions. And he says that McCain could sign into law the parental-notification law for minors traveling across state lines for abortions.
Of Obama, O'Steen says, "I believe him to be the most pro-abortion candidate we've ever faced for president." He and other conservatives point to Obama's vote in the Illinois Senate against a bill called the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which declared that a fetus that survives an abortion is a human person with protection under the law. Obama has said that the bill would have taken away women's abortion rights.
Obama's co-sponsorship of the Freedom of Choice Act, meanwhile, has buoyed abortion-rights supporters but galvanized the opposition of their socially conservative counterparts. The bill would codify Roe v. Wade and could use federal law to override state restrictions on abortion rights. "That's a law that would essentially wipe out 35 years of pro-life restrictive and regulatory legislation," says Colleen Parro, executive director of the Republican National Coalition for Life.
Abortion-rights groups are now solidly behind Obama. NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, points out that last summer Obama and Clinton were the first presidential candidates to ever address the group. "He was an eloquent and passionate spokesperson and supporter of women's health and rights. And I think he comes to these issues himself as a father of two daughters, and as a husband with a strong, independent wife.... I feel like we have a close relationship with the senator."
Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other groups are trying to draw distinctions between Obama and McCain not just on the right to terminate a pregnancy but also on birth control. In response to a National Journal questionnaire, the Obama campaign highlighted the senator's co-sponsorship with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., of a bill aimed at making birth control more affordable for low-income and college women, and his co-sponsorship of the Access to Birth Control Act, which would require pharmacies to fill birth control prescriptions.
Some of Obama's supporters believe that he also has a sufficiently nuanced view of abortion to attract centrist and conservative voters. Rachel Laser, culture program director of the progressive think tank Third Way, argues it this way: "The premise of Obama's campaign is that he embodies a new politics. His approach on abortion--acknowledging the complexity, reducing the need, and protecting the right--is the new politics on abortion."
This is the eighth in a 10-part series examining the differences between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain on major issues in the presidential race. Next week: Trade.
This article appears in the July 19, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.