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View From Washington: Netroots

View From Washington: Netroots


I felt myself bracing last Saturday at Netroots Nation as I sat and listened to Speaker Nancy Pelosi respond to a question about passing ENDA in front of an audience of roughly 1,000 or more progressive bloggers.

"I can't give you a time, but I can tell you that it is a priority," Pelosi said. "To do it this year, we have to finish 'don't ask, don't tell.' And hopefully we can do them both this year."

The direct action group GetEqual had been scheming about possible actions during speeches by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that day. Pelosi's speech took place that morning - Reid's would be in the afternoon - and ENDA turned out to be the very first question asked of Pelosi during her Q&A.

Never was I so aware of the prospect that LGBT activists could hijack an event to the detriment of the movement, depriving other swaths of progressives who were equally as concerned about their respective areas of interest and craved answers from getting them.

Though Pelosi failed to promise a vote on ENDA before the end of this Congressional session - a commitment the GetEqual folks surely hungered for - her answer elicited only a single cry from their cohort.

"Move on ENDA now!" cried one member of the group seated at the very front table of the room.

"Your impatience is justified," Pelosi responded.

Of course, the scene at Pelosi's speech wasn't nearly so dramatic as what transpired later that afternoon when the questioner for Reid's Q&A handed the senator the West Point ring that belonged to Dan Choi along with his discharge papers from the Army. But before delving into that piece of activism, I think it's important for the LGBT community to remember who was in the room.

They were allies. They were student DREAM Activists who have begun to "come out" about their status as undocumented immigrants so that their identities are not invisible to their peers who have had the good fortune of being born in this country. They were environmentalists who learned just days earlier that Democrats had abandoned the energy bill for the remainder of this Congress. They were many constituencies who watched the promise of health care reform dwindle to despair as major goals like providing a public option were scrapped.

So if a group of LGBT activists had stolen the show so to speak, robbed other progressives of their opportunities to hear directly from the Speaker and Majority Leader, they could have easily alienated a room full of people who would otherwise pull for LGBT equality.

GetEqual averted this potential disaster with a well planned, dignified action that simultaneously elicited a personal commitment from Reid to Dan Choi that he would finish the job on DADT repeal and engendered the heartfelt support of everyone in the room who has now been personally touched by the exchange. Instead of fomenting a room full of hostility, the action cultivated an army of converts who are now ever more invested in the fate of "don't ask, don't tell."

Though some have criticized this action as mere spectacle, I wholeheartedly believe it raised the stakes for Sen. Reid among a much broader base of progressives. And he now carries with him Dan Choi's ring, something I'm certain he hopes to have the pleasure of returning during a highly orchestrated photo-op arranged by his press office.

In other Netroots news, one of Obama's top 2008 campaign advisers, Steve Hildebrand, went on record for the first time saying he believes the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that he's "very perplexed" by the administration's continued effort to defend the law in the courts.

"I'd like to see the president and Attorney General Holder announce that they will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act and to agree with the judge's findings in the Massachusetts' court case," he said of U.S. judge Joseph Tauro's ruling earlier this month that DOMA is unconstitutional.

Though we're all aware of this decision, allow me to reiterate that Tauro found DOMA didn't even meet the "rational basis" test for denying federal recognition to same-sex couples - in legal terms, that's the most deferential test, or the easiest test, for a law to meet in order to pass as justifiable.

Hildebrand did not say this in my interview with him, but I would hazard to guess he believes this is precisely the type of situation where elections should have consequences. He backs the administration's approach to ending DADT because he believes the law cannot be repealed without enlisting the support of the Pentagon.

By contrast, beginning to dismantle DOMA does not necessitate vote wrangling or building momentum or corralling 60 senators to overcome a filibuster. Instead it only requires an administration led by a man who has called the law discriminatory and ran on a platform of repealing it to come down on the side of equality.

In other words, it is one law that unnecessarily harms and targets an aggrieved minority that can be declared unconstitutional by the president because it is. Judge Tauro's decision left no doubt of that.

Critics of this approach often say the Justice Department cannot pick and choose which laws it defends and that, if the Obama administration did so, it would set a terrible precedent for future administrations. But as Hildebrand noted, it is not the duty of the Justice Department to defend unconstitutional laws and, moreover, no future administration is going to sit around pondering what the Obama administration did before making key decisions. I somehow doubt that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney looked to the Clinton administration for guidance on major decisions at Justice. WWCD (What Would Clinton Do?) was clearly not their standard.

On Friday, Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour reported a piece about disillusionment among the Democratic base heading into the midterms and over the weekend the Associated Press reported a similar mood at the Netroots Nation conference.

The article noted that former White House environmental adviser Van Jones counseled the bloggers to have "patience."

"Change is still possible," he said.

If President Obama wonders why some LGBT advocates are so impatient, he might heed the advice of Hildebrand, who is simply asking him and his administration to live up to the promise he ran on. And that's something he could do at any given moment where DOMA is concerned. It's never too soon to make history.
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