With Stonewall in the news, and to be observed historically this week at the White House, these are the best paragraphs in the Sunday newspaper.
In conversations with gay activists on both coasts last week, I heard several theories as to why Obama has seemed alternately clumsy and foot-dragging in honoring his campaign commitments to dismantle DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The most charitable take had it that he was following a deliberate strategy, given his habit of pursuing his goals through long-term game plans. After all, he’s only five months into his term and must first juggle two wars, the cratered economy, health care and Iran. Some speculated that the president is fearful of crossing preachers, especially black preachers, who are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. Still others said that the president was tone-deaf on the issue because his inner White House circle lacks any known gay people.
But the most prevalent theory is that Obama, surrounded by Clinton White House alumni with painful memories, doesn’t want to risk gay issues upending his presidency, as they did his predecessor’s in 1993. After having promised to lift the ban on gays in the military, Clinton beat a hasty retreat into Don’t Ask once Congress and the Pentagon rebelled. This early pratfall became a lasting symbol of his chaotic management style — and a precursor to another fiasco, Hillarycare, that Obama is also working hard not to emulate.
But 2009 is not then, and if the current administration really is worried that it could repeat Clinton’s history on Don’t Ask, that’s ludicrous. Clinton failed less because of the policy’s substance than his fumbling of the politics. Even in 1992 a majority of the country (57 percent) supported an end to the military ban on gays. But Clinton blundered into the issue with no strategy at all and little or no advance consultation with the Joint Chiefs and Congress. That’s never been Obama’s way.
The cultural climate is far different today, besides. Now, roughly 75 percent of Americans support an end to Don’t Ask, and gay issues are no longer a third rail in American politics. Gay civil rights history is moving faster in the country, including on the once-theoretical front of same-sex marriage, than it is in Washington. If the country needs any Defense of Marriage Act at this point, it would be to defend heterosexual marriage from the right-wing “family values” trinity of Sanford, Ensign and Vitter.