Kerry’s ‘Cheney’s Lesbian Daughter’ Gambit Fails

Contrary to my expectations, the flap over Senator John Kerry’s reference to Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter during the final presidential debate continues to draw attention. Two venerable old columnists revisit the issue this morning, both arguing that it may wind up being the decisive moment in a tight race.

Bob Novak is charitable about the remark but believes the Kerry campaign has poorly managed its aftermath.

It’s hard to believe that in the closing weeks of a campaign where great issues are debated, the sexuality of the vice president’s daughter could be determinant. Still, overnight polling showed a sharp gain by George W. Bush. Whether this is coincidental or cause-and-effect is a subject for backstage political discussion in both parties.

Kerry campaign sources say there was no plan for Kerry to talk about Mary Cheney last Wednesday, and it never came up in the debate prep. Kerry’s intimates say he was trying to compliment the Cheneys, but there is absolutely nothing complimentary in what he said. Many Republicans see a calculated plot to depress Bush’s social conservative base by revealing the vice president’s daughter as a lesbian. But her sexual orientation is such common knowledge on the right that the alleged Democratic plot would be foolish. ather, Kerry’s comments appear to be spontaneous — and unpleasant. Faced with President Bush’s answer in the debate that he did not know whether he believed ”homosexuality is a choice,” Kerry blurted out they should go ask Mary Cheney, who ”would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.” This sounded like an effort to impute hypocrisy on the part of an opponent seeking to ban gay marriage. Democrats at debate-watching parties gasped in surprise. Wired focus group members across the country displayed an instant negative reaction. Old Democratic political hands, in disbelief, tried to convey their unhappiness to Kerry. Even Kerry’s Republican friend, Sen. John McCain, publicly criticized the Democratic nominee.

The only Kerry aide on the plane who wanted him to quickly issue an apology for any perceived insult was senior adviser Mike McCurry, the former Clinton spokesman who is a calm, cool voice among the overheated Kerryites. McCurry was alone. The Kerry brain trust argued that the Bush people were even nastier, and this was no time to be soft. Instead of an apology, the rhetoric escalated. Democrats outside the campaign were stunned by the words that followed. Kerry’s usually serene campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill referred to Mary Cheney as ”fair game.” The peak in meanness was attained by Elizabeth Edwards, the motherly wife of vice presidential nominee John Edwards. She contended the outburst against Kerry by Mary’s mother, Lynne, ”indicates a certain degree of shame” toward her daughter. It is difficult to exaggerate Lynne Cheney’s outrage over Elizabeth Edwards’ suggestion. Most of the Kerry camp, desensitized by political combat, saw nothing wrong with all this. His aides could find fault only with Lynne Cheney because she was enraged by the sight of Kerry invoking her daughter’s name and then professing to read Mary’s mind and express her thoughts.

Overnight polls by several organizations last Thursday night indicated a little slip by Kerry replacing a virtual deadlock between the candidates that followed the first debate. Pollster John Zogby’s nightly tracking last week for the first time showed a few Democrats moving from Kerry to Bush. When Mary Cheney was mentioned, ”soft Kerry” voters at pollster Frank Luntz’s Arizona debate focus group for the first time electronically indicated displeasure with the senator. It was a mistake by John Kerry, and it might well prove a serious one.

William Safire [RSS] is less kind:

That this twice-delivered low blow was deliberate is indisputable. The first shot was taken by John Edwards, seizing a moderator’s opening to smarmily compliment the Cheneys for loving their openly gay daughter, Mary. The vice president thanked him and yielded the remaining 80 seconds of his time; obviously it was not a diversion he was willing to prolong. Until that moment, only political junkies knew that a member of the Cheney family serving on the campaign staff was homosexual. The vice president, to show it was no secret or anything his family was ashamed of, had referred to it briefly twice this year, but the press – respecting family privacy – had properly not made it a big deal. The percentage of voters aware of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation was tiny. But Edwards’s answer in the vice-presidential debate raised that percentage. Because Cheney refused to react and the media did not see the spotlight on lesbianism as part of a political plan, the opening shot worked.

Emboldened, members of Kerry’s debate preparation team made Mary Cheney’s private life the centerpiece of their answer to the question, especially worrisome to them, about same-sex marriage. Kerry was prepped to insert her sexuality into his rehearsed answer: “If you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian. …” But in this second time around, the gratuitous insertion of Cheney’s daughter into an answer slipping around a hot-button social issue revealed that it was part of a deliberate Kerry campaign strategy. One purpose was to drive a wedge between the Republican running mates. President Bush supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman; Cheney has long been on record favoring state option, but always adds that the president sets administration policy. That rare divergence of views is hardly embarrassing. The sleazier purpose of the Kerry-Edwards spotlight on Mary Cheney is to confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, to suggest that Bush is as “soft on same-sex” as Kerry is, and thereby to reduce a Bush core constituency’s eagerness to go to the polls.

The pro-Kerry columnist Margaret Carlson put her finger on it, finding that Kerry and Edwards “realize that discussing Mary Cheney is a no-lose proposition: It highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney position to Democrats while simultaneously alerting evangelicals to the fact that the Cheneys have an actual gay person in their household whom they apparently aren’t trying to convert or cure.”

As I’ve noted before, I believe the remark was clearly deliberate but think Carlson’s rationale is the more likely explanation for it. Of all the reasons to not vote for John Kerry, this strikes me as incredibly low on the list–if it makes the list at all. But elections turn on odd things sometimes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    It really chaps my hide to agree with Novak, but this “mismanaging the aftermath” business was Kerry’s albatross all the way up to the first debate. It’s a relief to know the ol’ bird is still hanging around his neck.

    And if he can’t properly manage the aftermath of a rhetorical gaffe, how can we expect him to properly manage the aftermath of, say, a terrorist attack on U.S. soil?

  2. Mike says:

    It was rude and it was none of his business. That’s the problem, and Sen. Kerry just doesn’t understand that.

  3. Teri says:

    It was not an invasion of Mary Cheney’s privacy, because she and her family have been open about the fact that she is gay. However, it was intrusive, and unseemly.

    Kerry and most of his advisors don’t understand the nature of the people they were trying to affect. People who find homosexuality troublesome are also likely to find boorishness troublesome, and while the homosexual person isn’t running for office, the boor is.