There was another important political speech yesterday in addition to President Obama's Kansas speech. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the full force of United States foreign policy to protecting gay and lesbian rights around the world. This opens a new front in the political-culture war.
Clinton's call for ending the mistreatment of gays and lesbians around the world was immediately and predictably trashed by Rick Perry as “endorsing the gay lifestyle.”
Let me put aside my personal feelings — that the speech marks a watershed moment in the emerging but long overdue recognition that, as Clinton says, “gays rights are human rights” — and offer an opinion on the political implications of the administration's new position.
While it is true that the economy has muted abortion and gay rights as political issues in 2012, they are never far from the surface. Clinton's speech will undoubtedly be viewed as a major provocation to religious conservatives and a cynical political opportunity by those who see the issue as a chance to win votes. (See Rick Perry.)
But my sense is that people should be wary of engaging on the specifics of Clinton's policy — after all, she is talking about the United States working actively to oppose and stop not only employment and social discrimination against gays, but their physical abuse and even torture in some countries. And, even more generally and domestically, gay rights are becoming accepted in this country. Particularly among voters under 30 who have grown up more and more in a world where people no longer have to hide their sexual orientation. These voters know gay people as workers, neighbors, friends. Republicans, like Perry, will hurt themselves with the majority if they continue to play to the dwindling anti-gay minority.
Finally, Clinton's speech and Obama's policy will galvanize the gay rights political community. They have had their doubts about Obama, like many other progressives. The president just gave them real reason for renewed enthusiasm, and they are a powerful part of the Democratic base.