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10.15.10

Obama's Baffling Gay Snub

The president’s base—and the majority of the country—want to dump the controversial gays-in-the-military policy. So why won’t Obama just do the right thing? By Eric Alterman.

Let’s all try to get this straight: The military says its members will comply with a court order to stop enforcing its Don’t Ask, Don't Tell policy barring gays from serving openly in the military, even as the Obama administration asked a federal judge to delay implementation of the ruling as it readies its challenge to the decision. The "Department of Defense will of course obey the law," explained Col. Dave Lapan, a department spokesman, in an email to reporters.

I suppose it depends on the meaning of “obey” to say nothing of “of course” but let’s take Col. Lapan at his word and say good for the military. As for the president, we must ask (for the umpteenth time) just what the hell does the Obama administration think it is doing by kicking a key constituency in the teeth just as it appears poised to earn itself a shellacking at the polls because it can’t get its key constituencies to bother to turn out and vote?

Remember, candidate Obama said he supported the overturning of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Seventy-five percent of those recently polled by The Washington Post say they do, too (and you can bet the other 25 percent surely did not cast their 2008 votes for Barack Hussein Obama). The president says he has not changed his mind; he merely believes that the law should be changed by Congress, rather than by the courts. According to Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler, the department is doing what it always does: “defending the statute, as it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged." And since this law—like almost every other sensible proposal in Congress—is being held up by a united minority of 41 Republicans (representing just 33 percent of the nation’s population), it is scheduled to take place at approximately the same moment Hell freezes over.

His willingness to allow Justice to challenge the policy re-affirms that Barack Obama simply does not care about the wishes of the people who put him in office.

Obama’s position has a certain long-term political logic to it as long as one doesn’t look too carefully at the details of the debate. It’s undeniable that liberalism lost much of its popular appeal from the 1950s onward by attempting to engineer massive changes in social practices and attitudes through the courts rather than via democratic processes. It would be better for everyone if the recalcitrant Republican minority ended its obstructionism in the face not only of the view of the vast majority of the country, but also the secretary of defense and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  But by now one thinks Obama would have noticed that the political processes to which he wedded his presidency from day one have broken down.  On issue after issue, the Republicans are, as their leader Sarah Palin has proudly proclaimed “ the Party of ‘Hell, No.’” What’s more, the people who don’t want to allow gay people to serve openly in the military are already on the other side and lost to the Democrats, likely forever.

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At an MTV forum Thursday, Obama was pressed by a member of the audience, and  explained "This is not a situation in which, with the stroke of a pen, I can end the policy." Well, he’s right about that, but only because this time, it would end all by itself without Obama having to do anything. His willingness to allow the Justice Department to challenge the policy re-affirms, as if we already didn’t know this, that Barack Obama simply does not care about the wishes of the people who put him in office. If the president believes that by pandering to the prejudices of the people who hate him, he can advance his central political priorities, then his strongest supporters had better be prepared to swim ashore because they’re going overboard with or without their bathing suits on. The question in this case is what is the larger priority? Obama has all the cover he could want to let this policy die and has given the brass most, if not everything they want vis-à-vis Afghanistan. And it hardly seems that the ones who have not been placated by now are going to change their minds about the guy over this.

But back to the upcoming shellacking. Obama may very well be right that some significant portion of his agenda rests on challenging the court’s ruling, though it’s kind of hard to figure out how. Perhaps they will kick up less of a fuss if and when he decides, Nixon style, to choose “ peace with honor” in Afghanistan. Perhaps not. But these are the same kinds of calculations he made when he offered up concession after concession to pass his health-care and financial-reform bills. One can argue the merits of these decisions, but the politics? Well, clearly they stink. And with the midterms less than three weeks away, and with Democrats already in a panic about the unwillingness of their supporters to bother to turn out, and with, well, just about everything, from the party’s standpoint, racing to Hell in a proverbial handbasket, you would think that this one time, the president might allow himself to take a position that is consistent with what:

a)     Candidate Obama promised during the election

b)     President Obama says he still believes today

c)     Pretty much every single one of his supporters believed when they voted for him

d)     75 percent of the electorate say they want today

e)     And has now been declared the law of the land by two federal courts

But no.

Democrats are frequently accused of bringing a library book to a knife fight. This time, they’re bringing a knife, all right. But somehow, thanks to Obama’s decision, they’ve managed to stick it into their own backs. 

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.