View From the Hill: "DADT" Momentum

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com June 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

COMMENTARY: The tide is turning. We entered this week in the slump of inertia on "don't ask, don't tell" -- no Senate bill, no review commission, no preparation for a vote in the House -- and we went out with a bang.

First came Tuesday's statement from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs that President Obama and his nominee for secretary of the Army, GOP congressman John McHugh, "are in agreement on changing the policy they both don't think is working for this country." It was a seismic shift from Gibbs's standard set of talking points on the gay ban, which usually include some reminder that the only "durable solution" to the policy is congressional repeal and that the president "is working" with the Pentagon and Congress on the issue.

McHugh sits on the House Armed Services Committee and was quite vocal during last year's "DADT" hearings about wanting to see the military leadership confront this issue. If confirmed, he could serve as a counterbalance on the matter to the dead weight of Defense Secretary Gates and National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones. The behind-the-scenes buzz suggests that the White House tapped McHugh, at least in part, for this very reason.

If the Gibbs revelation weren't enough, the Human Rights Campaign's Joe Solmonese told Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball Thursday that he supported the idea of President Obama issuing a stop-loss order that would temporarily suspend the discharges of gay and lesbian soldiers. Until yesterday, HRC had been mute on the military's gay ban for months. In fact, this is really the first time they have publicly pressured the Obama administration on any LGBT issue.

The conversion came on the same day a controversial report surfaced from Daily Beast contributor Jason Bellini that gay leaders in Washington have been hamstringing efforts to repeal the policy -- something HRC vigorously denies -- as well as a statement from Aaron Belkin of the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center suggesting that some organizations have been "proactively lobbying against" the issue.

I have spoken with HRC and Bellini -- both categorically reject each other's claim. An HRC spokesperson called Bellini's report "an outright lie" and "recklessly irresponsible" while Bellini said, "I strongly stand by this reporting. This is a multiple-source story."

For his part, Belkin seized on the opportunity to enlist HRC's help on the stop-loss concept he began pushing several weeks ago. "I would say that it is very moving and powerful that HRC is now fully committed to immediate presidential action on the gays in the military issue," he told Pam's House Blend .

Without getting swept up in the "he said, he said" minutia of this firestorm, the big picture suggests a change in momentum on "DADT." And momentum matters a great deal in politics -- just like in sports.

Backed up against the wall of continued reports from mainstream organizations like Ben Smith's Politico.com piece , Andrew Sullivan's appearance on CNN , and, quite frankly, a sustained and heroic effort by Rachel Maddow to keep these discharges front and center, the White House may be concluding that they can't just shove LGBT issues in a drawer until they feel like playing with them at some later date.

And let's not overlook the fact that the administration's willingness to engage this issue came on the same week that HRC found its voice. As the LGBT organization with the most access to the White House, HRC might have some sort of sixth sense about where the administration is headed. In fact, Solmonese not only called for a moratorium on the policy during his Hardball appearance -- he said he believed the administration would overturn the gay ban "in the course of a year or so." Sounds like a lofty goal when the Senate bill is still collecting dust on some staffer's desk, but any timeline is better than none, which is what we had at the week's start.

As the "DADT" train began edging out of the station this week, the marriage train rolled on with yet another state -- New Hampshire -- joining the ranks of the maritally equitable. Technically, seven states have now legalized marriage, though we lost California, leaving us with six. Half of those six wins came while President Obama was traveling abroad -- Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Let's face it -- his overseas trips have been good to our community.

But New Hampshire marked yet another notable milestone for the movement -- in the states where we can legally marry, we have now won that right legislatively in just as many states as we've done it judicially. Before summer's end, New York might tip the balance.

When that time comes, let's hope President Obama moves beyond the campaign rhetoric he offered to Brian Williams on marriage this week.

"I think gays and lesbians have a friend in the White House because I've consistently committed myself to civil unions, making sure that they have the ability to visit each other in hospitals, that they are able to access benefits, that they have a whole host of legal rights that they currently do not have," he said.

As a friend put it to me, it's so '90s -- especially against the backdrop of his boldness in Cairo, which was unabashedly revolutionary and progressive. I mean, c'mon, Dick Cheney's views on gay marriage now outstrip the president's.

Not to mention the fact that providing the "whole host of legal rights" Obama mentions is going to take some leadership in Washington since the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing perfectly legal same-sex marriages.

The White House is no doubt thrilled that all the real work on marriage is being done in the states -- that is clearly where they want the debate to stay. But as more states make marriage equality the law of their land, it's incumbent upon President Obama to translate his campaign speak on the trail into movement on the Hill.