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Obama, DADT, and Lobbying the Radical Moderate

2010.May.18

Point of clarification: it’s all a Democrat’s fault.

Bill Clinton himself has admitted that his naive rush to “allow” gays in the military by instituting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a bad decision, resulting in an awkward bit of protocol that no one (including Clinton himself) expected to last this long. For all the anti-gay posturing of Republicans before and since, it was not Reagan or Bush I but Clinton and his bicameral Democratic majority who took a military directive and turned it into federal law.

But we all know it’s up to a Democrat to fix the mess; alas, our big hope is an old school president elected in new school times. Oh sure, Obama’s “diverse” and technologically inclined, but he approaches politics like a man born in another time: he skips the rhetoric and chides his opponents to do the same; then he makes a proposal, expects his opponents to suggest a reasonable compromise… and after a bit of teeth-gritting back-and-forth, a moderate policy is achieved and the greater good is achieved. This is called consensus-building, and it is pretty much antithetical to anything you will find on cable TV opinion programming.

Alas, these are new school times (or at least times from another side of the political cycle), where most of Obama’s opponents (and many of his allies) would just as soon shove rhetoric down America’s throats, stonewall without compromise, and go on cable opinion shows to blame everything on the opposition (even when it was your idea to begin with) than hash out nuanced compromise over a round table discussion.

The juxtaposition makes Obama’s slow-even-for-old-school approach to ending DADT stand out all the more. When the political atmosphere is overly charged, overly vitriolic, and overly partisan, being moderate seems radical; I contend that this is why Obama was elected–it’s certainly why I voted for him. However, many of those voting for a radically moderate policy may not have been expecting that it would be accompanied by radically moderate action, and some of Obama’s strongest supporters are getting tired of waiting for that “radical” part to kick in. DADT would seem like the perfect opportunity to implement major cultural progress that would reduce costs, require little Congressional crossfire, and avoid overhauling any further cornerstones to our economy.

Yet, Obama waited, and with good reason from his perspective. Ending two wars, averting financial collapse, and planting the roots of systemic change in healthcare seemed more important because they affected everyone. While social justice ideals may tell us that “an injustice somewhere is an injustice everywhere”, the fact of the matter is that most Americans (even the majority who support some advancement of LGBT rights) would have seen gay rights as a need of the few in the face of the needs of the many. Sadly, politics is perception, and jumping into such a decision could have endangered every other dream placed in Obama, radical or moderate.

Keep in mind, the nation is so primed right now that if Obama can reach the end of a single term without being assassinated or converting our nation over to rampant socialism, without rewriting the constitution to praise Allah or seizing property from Whites to give it to Blacks, without abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan or invading small town America, it will be a great victory for radical moderation over the dangerous forces of overblown rhetoric (though, without a separate figurehead, one unlikely to be claimed and, therefor, noticed).

There were small opportunities; perhaps Obama’s first weeks in office, or that dizzying week after health insurance reform passed: points in time when Obama was riding on high waves and an executive order suspending DADT could easily have been buried amid a thousand other headlines. But Obama’s approach of moderate action prevented such a stealthy move; what on a national level seems to be a simple transition will still have a direct impact on soldiers who are already psychologically stretched and physically drained. So he has called for a year-long analysis (such a study panel is the kind of moment when even I will mutter “liberal” under my breath with a snarl) to research how best to end DADT.

Will it take a full year to strategize the implementation of a DADT repeal? I seriously doubt it. Could measures further than those recently put in place have been taken to slow the impact of DADT? Of course. However, during that time, soldiers and officers who oppose the repeal will have a lot more time to consider their opinion and prepare for the change (Hell, we may even be out of Iraq by then, which should make anything easier for our military). Knowing it is coming should, I hope, make it easier to accept when the time has come. Even once it is legally possible for LGBT soldiers to serve openly, it will not be easy, and some soldiers will remain closeted for years, if not decades; the social adjustment could easily take a generation, but a gradual implementation (or period of warning) will go a long way into smoothing the rough waters of change.

There are more cynical advantages for Obama to delay, of course. He is keeping his options open, for one; should the November election see the Dems blown out of the water (which I doubt, but six months is an eternity in politics), he will move toward 2012 with one fewer bulletpoint against him from social conservatives. Or make that three, because while Obama supports gay adoption and “civil unions”, the sooner DADT passes, the sooner activists on both side will move on to fighting over even more controversial steps toward equality. And while few of the Black American voters who supported Obama 19-to-1 in 2008 have noticed how little his agenda has thus far helped non-whites and poor communities, you can expect that some of the 64% who find “homosexual behavior” to be “morally wrong” would notice if they saw LGBT equality placed as a higher priority.

(None of these items is as straightforward as presented here, though it is perceived to be by many. Sadly, this comparison–which is not original to me–is just another symptom of us-and-them thinking, where even constituents of progressive values focus on their own communities and do not recognize the commonality with other maligned groups.)

But drawing action from a radical moderate will not come from thinking cynically. LGBT activists have been exasperated with Obama’s inaction since the day after inauguration, and they have only experienced one major victory during his 16 months in office. There has been organization and marching and blogging and activism galore–and this is as it should be. In a way, maybe the DADT delay has been good for the LGBT community, too. Not for the individuals, sadly (rates have slowed since Obama’s inauguration, but hundreds have still been booted through his delay), but for the organizations and the LGBT community at large. As a repeal of DADT has approached… well, become imminent… well, seemed likely… eventually… the LGBT community has had less public attention on same-sex marriage (and even activists were running the risk of outrage fatigue after Prop 8). Perhaps with this little detour toward DADT (and ENDA, which will hopefully come next), the disparate opinions within the community will have a chance to breathe and remember what they have in common.

While the goal of every activist organization should be to render itself obsolete, a motivated and unified community is easier to solicit for donations and volunteers, and I suspect there’s still a huge well of untapped hetero allies out there who haven’t given since they got that HRC sticker on their back windows. At the same time, the broader American culture continues to inch closer toward tacit, even open, acceptance of that community and the notion that, hey, gays are people too! Demonstrations help that and arrests help that, so long as they remain clear, focused, and non-violent. Signs about same-sex marriage and adoption will do well alongside those on DADT and ENDA, but don’t try to also protest the wars, corporate media corruption, and the closing down of your local library (at least not at the same event). Activists must treat every opportunity as a discussion on one specific topic and resist the urge to yell at the hetero-normative public instead of talking with them. While some minds are not likely to ever change, others will be preparing for change who wouldn’t have otherwise.

Don’t misunderstand me; Obama is a busy man with a full agenda. Reneging will come all-too-easily if LGBT activists do not keep up the pressure. Politics being the antithesis of humanization, you cannot expect any politician to treat you like a human being instead of just a vote; you must demand it. It is the right and responsibility of every supporter of LGBT equality (whoever you sleep with) to keep up the protests, keep up the letters, keep up the conversation so the President does not–cannot–forget his promise. Unless the Dems keep a strong majority in mid-term elections (which is possible, but hardly likely at this point), I doubt we will see national progress beyond DADT and ENDA during Obama’s first term; then, it will again fall to LGBT activists to help him win a second term so he can make bigger promises toward equality and we can work tirelessly another four years to hold him to them.

It isn’t fair–and promises have already been broken–but it is the way of politics. You have to fight a lot to win a little, and deserving it means you just have to work twice as hard.

Questions to ask while we wait:

How is recruitment?
Why no temporary moratorium?
What about those already discharged?
Will DADT impact mid-term elections?

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