McCain's not-so-straight talk on gay rights & abortion

Appearing yesterday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Senator John McCain was asked about his positions on gay rights and abortion (ostensibly so that he could distinguish his views from those of Rudy Giuliani). McCain’s answers were not exactly “straight talk,” (unless we understand “straight” as simply the opposite of “gay.”)

On gay rights, McCain said he was against same-sex marriage, but that he was also against “discrimination.” That’s a dodge, but the same one used by a great many politicians, Republican and Democratic alike. However, Stephanopoulos, to his credit, asked a couple of follow-ups, including why McCain voted for the (failed) Arizona ballot initiative, which would have banned not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions. McCain seemed to say in response that civil unions are unnecessary because same-sex partners can create powers of attorney and the like to simulate the benefits of marriage. (I can’t be sure that this is what he meant to say because, speaking live, McCain was somewhat unclear.) That’s just false. Some of the benefits of marriage or civil union—such as entitlement to medical benefits for partners—cannot be obtained by such unilateral action. Moreover, even if all such benefits could be obtained by ordinary contract, making same-sex couples go through the enormous hassle and expense to get benefits that opposite-sex couples get automatically is itself an obvious form of discrimination. Asked another follow-up, McCain said that while he didn’t think it necessary to amend Title VII specifically to give gays and lesbians protection against workplace discrimination, he nonetheless opposed such discrimination. This is a version of the right’s attempt to cast anti-discrimination law as conferring “special rights,” and it’s either ill-informed or disingenuous. The only kind of protection that Title VII confers is “special” protection against discrimination on the basis of particular categories, such as “race” and “sex.” Unfortunately, in his haste to get to other subjects, Stephanopoulos did not ask the obvious next follow-up: Given the logic of McCain’s claim, shouldn’t the law deny protection against those “specific” forms of discrimination as well?

McCain’s answers on abortion were also contradictory. After declaring that he favored a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion except in a few extreme cases (such as threats to the survival of the mother), McCain went on to say that he hoped the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the states, where, McCain declared, it belongs. Huh? If the issue belongs at the state level, why does McCain support a constitutional amendment that would take it away from the states even more effectively than Roe did (albeit in the opposite direction)?

On both of these social issues, it’s not clear which is the more disturbing prospect: That McCain doesn’t realize the self-contradictory nature of his positions or that he does.