View From Washington: DADT 2010?

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com August 17 2009 12:00 AM ET

Former President Bill Clinton is back to talking about LGBT issues -- hat tip to Netroots Nation and activist Lane Hudson, who interrupted Clinton during his keynote address to the gathering of progressive bloggers.

In case you missed this rather gripping video of President Clinton vigorously defending his actions in enacting "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, it's really the first time we've heard this type of fire and candor from Clinton on the subject.

"You want to talk about 'don't ask, don't tell'?" Clinton said. "I'll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn't deliver me any support in the Congress and they voted by a veto-proof majority in both houses against my attempt to let gays serve in the military."

And on DOMA: "We were attempting at the time, in a very reactionary Congress, to head off an attempt to send a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the states."

The accuracy of Clinton's explanations will most certainly be chewed over by the LGBT politically obsessed -- myself included -- but what's paramount in all of this is that the most prominent political figure on our national stage besides President Obama publicly and forcefully disparaged both laws in today's context.

"Can you believe they spent -- whatever they spent -- $150,000 to get rid of a valued Arabic speaker recently?" Clinton said of discharging Lt. Dan Choi.

"And, you know," he continued, "the thing that changed me forever on 'don't ask, don't tell' was when I learned that 130 gay service people were allowed to serve and risk their lives in the first Gulf War, and all their commanders knew they were gay. They let them go out there and risk their lives because they needed them, and then as soon as the first Gulf War was over, they kicked them out ... that's all anybody needs to know, to know that this policy should be changed."

Now, people can say what they want about too little, too late, but this appearance will certainly invite more questions on the subject, and probably from mainstream reporters in high-profile venues. And every time President Clinton opens his mouth on DOMA and DADT, President Obama's present passivity on the two matters will become a little more glaring and a little less admissible.

Or as Richard Socarides, former LGBT adviser and special assistant to President Clinton, put it, "For President Obama, as well as for any and all other national Democratic Party officials, this will become an increasingly difficult equation to maneuver around because we're at the tipping point on these issues."

It could force exactly the type of media events that will demand attention from the administration, and as far as I can tell, every little bit of that exposure will be necessary since President Obama is sinking the entirety of his political capital into health reform.

In fact, the more I watch millions in advertising being spent by sundry special interest groups set against the backdrop of screaming town-hallers and elected officials like GOP senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa saying that people "have every right to fear" the government might "pull the plug on grandma," the more conceivable it seems that this administration might either break the political capital bank getting a bill passed or be so politically wounded by not passing one that they limp into the 2010 midterms.

President Obama himself conceded this week that immigration reform would have to wait till next year. Even in light of the administration's unflagging commitment to wooing Hispanic voters, they've apparently made the calculation that delivering Justice Sotomayor was trophy enough in year one to satisfy the Spanish-speaking constituency -- not to take anything away from her historic accomplishment.

Obama's announcement of Operation Immigration 2010 came right on the heels of Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, telling U.S. News & World Report that the White House will likely move on "don't ask, don't tell" next spring. While this pretty much matches previous comments from Rep. Barney Frank and other Washington insiders, all I can think is Really?

Just as a point of reference, President George W. Bush tried and failed twice to bag immigration reform during his tenure. Let's just take a leap of faith and say the Obama administration survives health reform with enough verve left to take a stab at immigration -- anybody have any guesstimates as to how much that debate will dominate the political landscape of 2010?

The point is, this is an administration with big priorities and August is offering us a glimpse of just how contentious these issues are and how far certain interest groups will go to get their way. It's getting harder every day to imagine how an administration that hasn't even granted an interview to an LGBT news outlet is going to find time alongside immigration to end "don't ask, don't tell."

As Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America , told me, "I understand when people counsel patience because if the White House had done 'don't ask, don't tell' first, it might have looked like their priorities were out of whack. But this political debate around health care is a sobering reminder that there's always something else that's going to be an excuse for not doing the right thing."

In our magazine's September cover story , Marsha Scott, President Clinton's first liaison to the LGBT community, offered this observation about Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: "Rahm can never stop thinking about winning elections. Rahm is good at governing effectively, but he's not good on social justice issues. Rahm's goal is to not lose one seat in Congress at midterms."

Emanuel and other White House advisers clearly believe that successfully brokering immigration reform will carry the benefit of endearing Democrats to the fastest-growing voting population in the nation. As for ending "don't ask, don't tell," let's just say this: There's little if any evidence they see a political upside to taking on an issue that polls at 75% support for repeal and continues to compromise our national security.