Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - the go-slow policy

President Obama hasn't done much on the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. Many liberals, and at least one conservative, are getting a little antsy. Andrew Sullivan is impatient.
My fear in this as with the economy is that Obama likes to tear band-aids off very, very slowly.
Matt Yglesias is particularly frustrated:
[U]ltimately delay does no one any favors. The change will have to come sooner or later. In political terms, the White House may as well act decisively, take whatever hits they're going to take, and be done with it rather than letting this fester like a sore. And substantively, if the military is going to have to adjust they may as well do it sooner rather than later rather than lose more valuable personnel.
That's an eloquent articulation of a simplistic idea. It's also an example of what I call the "magic wand" theory of political action. This can be done today, so why aren't we?

Yglesias realizes that lack of adequate planning is part of what got Clinton in trouble over this issue:
Obama's decision on a variety of fronts has been guided by a clear desire to avoid some of the early missteps made by Bill Clinton. And conventional accounts of Clinton’s early presidency put the way he got into an early dispute with the military brass over treatment of gay and lesbian servicemembers high on the list of missteps to be avoided.
Again, an eloquent articulation of a simplistic idea. Clinton's mistake was that he picked a fight with the military. Really not a good idea for a guy who was basically a draft dodger.

But Clinton's situation was a little more complicated than that, as is Obama's. It wasn't that Clinton picked a fight with the military; it was that both he and the gay community were totally unprepared for the fight. Allowing gays in the military wasn't a high priority of the gay community at the time; they were much more worried about other issues, particularly AIDS. Clinton had not laid any groundwork politically for allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military. When the backlash came, Clinton and his gay and liberal allies were quickly overwhelmed. The result was that we ended up with a bad policy that institutionalized discrimination.

For Clinton, gays in the military became a flashpoint, something for his enemies to focus on. It wasn't just that Clinton wasn't prepared for the fight; he had no idea there was going to be a fight at all.

That is exactly what Obama wants to avoid. Right now gay rights are a very, very touchy subject with a lot of people. The problem is not that they are angry. The problem is that they have nowhere to focus their anger. There are a lot of people in places like North Dakota who are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but who are also queasy with everything they are hearing about gay marriage. But there's nothing they can do about something happening in New Hampshire. If Obama takes a strong stand on DADT, or any gay issue, all of that anger is going to focus on him.

Clinton's first year in office was actually quite successful, but the gays in the military issue had a ridiculously outsized impact, coming, as it did, very early in his presidency. It threw him off his stride, and let his enemies gain some traction. And then the Democrats lost the House in 1994.

The political calculus for Obama is very straightforward. Eliminating DADT is the right thing to do. But timing in politics is crucial. Obama has a huge number of things on his plate. He doesn't want to risk support for his broader agenda on an issue that, let's face it, affects a few thousand people. Is that cold and calculating? Yes, it is. But guess what - it's also good politics.

The timing is also poor because we are fighting two wars. Obama's military priority right now is winning those wars, or at least getting us out of there. Once he does that, once he has credibility as a military leader, he will have more clout with the military.

Matt Yglesias makes one very problematic assumption: he assumes that Obama will win this issue. Obama cannot make that assumption.

Obama is being very careful with DADT because there is a very real possibility that he will not be successful. Obama is doing the exact opposite of Clinton for one very good reason: Clinton failed.

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