When a Nod’s Not Enough
BY James Kirchick
January 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
As with so many other issues of importance to gay people, on “don’t ask, don’t tell” Obama’s hand will be strengthened by the progress Americans have made in their attitudes toward gays. Whereas a majority of Americans supported the ban on openly gay soldiers in 1993, about 75% -- including a majority of Republicans -- now oppose it. Additionally, a string of prominent former military leaders, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili, have come out publicly in opposition to the ban. Even the current military leadership shows signs of promise. Whereas then–Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell threatened to resign over Clinton’s pushing of the issue, the current chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, last year told cadets at West Point that he’s open to a review of the policy. In his 2007 Senate confirmation testimony, Mullen explicitly informed Congress that it’s the military’s duty to implement civilian orders -- not the other way around.
After eight years of an administration that was at best indifferent and at worse actively hostile to gay rights, it’s understandable that gays would welcome the prospect of a Democratic administration with unadulterated optimism. But optimism about the Obama administration should not lead to complacency, and any strategy to pass legislation must be tempered with realism. “I think we are realistic in our expectations, which doesn’t mean we need to sit on our hands,” Stachelberg says. And putting too much stock in the words of politicians can lead to disappointment down the road. After all, Clinton was the first presidential nominee to make explicit appeals to the gay voters, earning their overwhelming support. Yet he was the same president to sign “don’t ask, don’t tell” and DOMA into law, and he trumpeted his support for the latter on Christian radio when he ran for reelection in 1996.
Obama has shown far more self-control than the notoriously undisciplined, shoot-from-the-hip Clinton, earning himself the nickname “No Drama Obama.” If the Obama administration is anything like the Obama campaign, expect to see few leaks and a well-executed, patient game plan. “I think that, unlike President Clinton, you have somebody who has spent time in Congress as a member of the U.S. Senate, has studied prior administrations and what they’ve done right and done wrong, and has brought in advisers who have gone through those experiences,” Baldwin says. But this political savvy has a potential downside, in that it may lead the administration to manage (read: play down) disagreement from its various constituencies. In that case, gay advocates will need to stand firm no matter how hard they may find the task of voicing complaint about a Democratic president. “It may be, in a given round of engagement, that we don’t get what we ask for,” Wolfson says. “But if we ask for less than we deserve we are guaranteed to get less than we deserve.”
Gay leaders faced such a quandary a full month before Obama even took the oath of office. In December he announced that Rick Warren -- the popular evangelical leader of California's Saddleback megachurch -- would deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Warren was a prominent supporter of Proposition 8 and has said that legalizing gay marriage could lead to the recognition of polygamy and incest. Immediately, gay groups protested, with HRC issuing a public letter to Obama calling his decision a "genuine blow" to LGBT Americans. Obama waved off the criticism, stressing that his ideology of inclusion means breaking bread with people on the other side of political debates, especially divisive ones. “It is important for Americans to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues," Obama said at a press conference. Warren’s role at the inauguration is entirely ceremonial, but could the symbolism of giving such him a prominent platform -- one that confers legitimization -- signal legislative disappointments down the road?