Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't Ask, DOMA Tell

I intended to start this post by saying that the Obama administration's approach to gay rights was "rather pathetic." Maybe "pretty pathetic." After careful consideration, I realized neither was correct. There's no need for the modifier.

It was bad enough when apathy was the order of the day of the White House. After promising to repeal the odious Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, Obama took no steps toward fulfilling those pledges during his first months in the Oval Office. There were a few symbolic measures. But the administration did nothing to indicate that its devotion to gay rights extended beyond the kind of vague philosophical inclinations expressed by a reluctant college freshman in his first public speaking course.

If apathy was bad, outright hostility was even worse. When a gay California couple, married during the brief period after the legalization of gay marriage in that state but before the passage of Proposition 8, challenged the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, the Obama Department of Justice filed a brief in support of DOMA. That was troublesome, but, arguably, necessary; several legal theorists have said that the administration is obligated to defend existing federal law, even while working to change it. What was not necessary were invocations of old cases arguing that states didn't need to recognize marriages between blood relatives. It goes without saying that many found those arguments and the implicated comparisons offensive.

Finally and fortunately the administration's attitude has come back to bite it. Several wealthy gay donors have withdrawn from an upcoming DNC fundraiser in protest. When you're trying to send a message to a political party, there's no better weapon than the checkbook.

Look, I'm an idealist, but I'm not that stupid. Obama doesn't support gay marriage, and I know that. I knew it during the last days of the campaign when I was slinging door knockers in Independence, Missouri. So it's impossible to be disappointed about that stance; disapppointment requires a measure of surprise.

And while it offends me that DOMA still befouls the Federal Register, again, I'm not disappointed. I fully expected Obama to slow walk any attempt to repeal DOMA. The bill was passed with substantial Democratic support and signed by a Democratic president. Repealing it would be a brutal, bruising fight, and it seems like Obama doesn't have the chin for many of those.

But there will never be a better time to move on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The President remains deeply popular with the American people. I'd like to think that can last another eight years, but those poll numbers are going to take a hit once the administration dives into the trenches on worthy issues like health care and the budget. The White House has to take advantage of the President's popularity while it remains robust. And don't talk to me about "political capital," because that's not actually a thing. Regardless of what you've read on the standard lefty websites, the US Senate is not the Mafia. It doesn't work on a one-to-one favor swapping system.

A Gallup poll indicates that nearly 70 percent of Americans support repealing the ban on openly gay soldiers. 58 percent of conservatives agree with that. It would take some skill to frame the debate as a national security issue instead of a pure gay rights issue, but we're talking about a President who made a 28-minute speech on race into a YouTube sensation. Communication is kind of the guy's thing. The White House should show faith in his ability to convince Americans that we do not make our country safer by discharging linguists who speak Arabic.

I have faith that the President is personally a tolerant and empathetic man who treats homosexuals with the respect they deserve as human beings. But that's not enough. At some point you have to do something.

If the President is backtracking on DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell because he realizes his campaign pledges were wrong and he now believes DOMA is a good bill and DADT a good policy, then I respect that. But if you're doing it 'cause you think it's gonna be too hard or you think you're gonna lose...well, God, Barack, I don't even want to know you.

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