It makes no strategic sense for Bob Kerrey to bring up his support for gay marriage on the campaign trail in Nebraska, where he’s the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat. Republicans far outnumber Democrats here; the state’s voters are socially conservative; his opponents are already smearing him as some effete import from the bohemian wilds of Lower Manhattan; and he trails the Republican nominee in the polls.
He brings up gay marriage anyway. Not every day, but on many of them. Not in response to voters’ questions, but at the prodding of his own conscience.
I got the feeling that his advisers would like him to stop — and that he knows he’d probably be wise to.
But here’s the thing: he’s 68. This race to reclaim the Senate seat that he held from 1989 to 2001, after which he retired from politics and relocated to New York, could be his last. And if he’s going to go down, he told me, he wants to go down fighting for what’s right and for what he truly believes. That means making a pitch for gay marriage.
“What I usually say is, ‘Let me talk to you about the issue of homosexuality,’ ” Kerrey said over a drink here Saturday night. And then he indeed talks to voters about it, telling them that people are born the way they are and deserve a full complement of civil rights, including the right to marry. It’s that simple.
“People who are opposed to it are going to have to be explaining to their grandkids: why, why, why was that the rationale?” he said. “We’re going to be embarrassed in 25 years.”
A life in politics often means the death of candor, twisting candidates into disingenuous knots. Barack Obama was for gay marriage as an Illinois state senator in the 1990s, when his audience was one liberal district, before he was against it over the next decade, when his aspirations were national. As Mitt Romney’s term in the Massachusetts governor’s office progressed, his positions on social issues regressed, and he entered the 2008 Republican primaries as a political animal with a whole new set of stripes.
Kerrey has been consistent, starting with his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton.
All 53 Republicans in the Senate voted for it. So did 32 Democrats, including Joe Biden. Most of the 14 Democrats who opposed D.O.M.A. were from states — California, Massachusetts — that were unlikely to punish them for it. Kerrey stood out.
“I know that Bob Kerrey looked at this issue as a right-or-wrong question,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who also voted against D.O.M.A. “I remember talking with him about it at the time. With Bob, you just get an unvarnished judgment.”