There are some things in this world that should not be taken lightly, no matter who you are. The opportunity to be about two dozen feet away from the President of the United States is one of them.
That's the position I found myself in this past Monday at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles, where I had the good fortune to be present at a fundraising event headlined by President Barack Obama on behalf of Senator Barbara Boxer and the Democratic National Committee. The event ended up making headlines--just, not for the reasons the President may have anticipated.
A well-organized contingent from a newly formed group named Get Equal systematically disrupted the President early in his remarks, calling on him repeatedly to speed up the repeal of the military's so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that requires the dishonorable discharge of servicemembers who reveal themselves--or are revealed--to be gay. And despite getting my political start in a blogging community where incivility is often believed to be a virtue, I quickly found myself annoyed by the series of well-timed interruptions. After all, I had paid a not insignificant amount of money precisely for the opportunity to hear the President speak, and these hecklers were preventing me from taking advantage of that opportunity.
These feelings of annoyance were somewhat mitigated at the time by the way the President handled the situation. He even invited one of the hecklers to come up to the front and address the crowd--though the Secret Service would have none of it--and proclaimed loudly that both he and Senator Boxer agreed with the agitators and that they should be spending their time harassing those who didn't agree with them instead.
At the time, it seemed like a perfect resolution to an annoying interruption. But on the way home, I began to think: did I get it all wrong?
To begin with: although it sounded like an excellent response at the time, the President's request that the protesters heckle opponents of gay rights instead of him is completely illogical. To use a tired sports analogy: a player won't go screaming at the players on the opposing team for attempting to score and win the game. That's what they're expected to do. What will draw a player's ire, however, is if the all-star free agent they signed in the offseason to lead the team deep into the playoffs stands around on the ice, or field, or court, because he's too afraid of getting hurt. That might warrant a tirade.
And just like he did during the initial months of the debate over health insurance reform, this President has spent much of his time in office watching from the sidelines as one of the marquee civil rights issues of our generation unfolds around him. And while Obama's recent Executive Order forbidding discrimination against the LGBT community regarding hospital visitations is a step in the right direction, the President has actively regressed on the issue of DADT.
As recently as November, The Advocate reported that according to Congressman Barney Frank, DADT repeal would be a part of the impending Defense Authorization bill that would be considered this summer. At this point, however, not only is it not in the initial version of the bill, but the White House is now saying that it will not consider repeal until after the Pentagon completes a review on December 1. That is the exact opposite of progress.
It seems somewhat obvious that the strategy by the White House is designed to delay the issue until after the midterm elections. Given what is already shaping up to be a difficult climate for Democrats, it seems that the political people in the administration are more afraid of creating what they perceived as another political headache. But for the community that is most affected by DADT, it's not just that patience is wearing thin--it's that time is running out.
Obama has shown himself to be a President who will try against all odds to build consensus and wait for Congress to send something to his desk, rather than forcefully advocate for anything he seems to want. And while it may be an admirable quality in a leader of what seems to be a deeply divided country, it also increases the urgency for interest groups who are depending on a hospitable Congress and a sympathetic President to accomplish a key part of their agenda. It will be a difficult enough effort to pass DADT repeal through Congress this cycle, even with a substantial Democratic majority. What will happen when that Democratic majority is substantially reduced, or even eliminated? At that point, there will be very little chance of passing repeal for a very long time. That would force supporters of repeal to depend on an Executive Order to halt DADT discharges
It should be no surprise, then, that proponents of equality are turning to the more desperate measure of very public civil disobedience in an effort to advance their cause. As a matter of fact, it's their only option. And while the tactics of the Get Equal protesters may have been distasteful to many, the fact that President Obama has heretofore reneged on his commitment is primarily responsible.
Simply put, repealing DADT as soon as possible is the right thing to do. There is no reason that any branch of our government should be claiming that one's orientation makes one any more or less fit to serve our country. And it is not just an LGBT issue--it is a women's rights issue as well: more than one-third of servicemembers discharged under DADT are women, even though women only comprise 15% of active military personnel.
And the administration's reticence in this regard would be more tolerable if its political calculus were remotely understandable--and yet, there seems to be no tangible evidence that the quantity of votes (and money) that would go against Democrats for pushing DADT repeal would outweigh those that would support them. In fact, available evidence seems to suggest the opposite: Democratic members of Congress are worried about losing the time, money and enthusiasm of the LGBT community if this commitment is not met.
In conclusion, there is no reason for President Obama not to vocally request that Congress send a repeal of DADT to his desk. And if he does, the LGBT community should show just as much enthusiasm come November in supporting the Democrats who will have made it happen as they are in pushing for it right now.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go chain myself to the White House gate until Obama bans betting against your own collateralized debt obligations.