Friday, October 22, 2010

It's the politics, not the policy

The controversy over Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a perfect illustration of what the Obama Administration has gotten right the last two years, and where it still falls short. To begin with, they're absolutely correct on the policy merits: DADT must be defended vigorously by the Justice Department, unless there is no conceivable case for its constitutionality. While I believe it's definitely a bad policy, and quite possibly unconstitutional, I concede that an argument could be made against the latter. To therefore refuse to defend the policy, or to give it a halfhearted defense, would be an abject rejection of why Obama's election seemed so important: defending DADT while attempting to repeal it in Congress is the mature, adult, responsible, pragmatic and long-term-oriented decision.

Not only would refusing to defend a potentially-constitutional policy be a terrible precedent (what future constitutionally-valid policies would you like to see a Republican president fail to defend, if you disagree?), it's not just about precedent. One of many reasons our government is so broken is that it operates with a complex system of unwritten rules, and when those rules are violated, the country becomes harder to govern. For instance, while it's been possible to mount a filibuster for a century, it's been rare up until now because of those unwritten rules, and the current despicable Congress is a direct result of abandoning that system of genteel restraint. Presidents defending laws with which they disagree, while seeking to repeal them, is likewise a very important part of that tradition.

Perhaps more significantly for some, it makes much better long-term sense to repeal DADT through Congress. Doing otherwise would further entrench the notion that democracy is being subverted by an activist judiciary. It would leave DADT on the books, just waiting to be reinstated by a single judge who decided that, oh look, it actually is constitutional after all. It would keep GLBT soldiers in a much more precarious situation, knowing that if they disclose their sexuality, all that stands between them and discharge is a single federal judge, somewhere in the country. It would waste an opportunity for the public to express its will that Don't Ask, Don't Tell no longer should be the law of the land. It would violate what I imagine is the deal Obama made with the military, to work towards repeal and not do it overnight. And ultimately, as a law passed by Congress, the most appropriate way to reverse it would be for Congress, which initially created the injustice, to do it themselves.

What I find so illustrative about this situation, however, is that the Obama Administration is doing the right thing, and doing it in such a way as to send the biggest "fuck you" possible to its base at the same time, without even attempting to ameliorate the damage and for no good reason. I think the policy merits of this approach are something the left generally could be completely convinced to believe, if anyone in the Obama Administration had made the slightest attempt to do so. Instead, they've hunkered down and complained, as always, that their base - which currently believes it's getting reamed yet again by the Administration they elected - is whiny. This is just a stupid reaction, and the fact that they're doing it yet again just unnecessarily increases the frustration on the left, a week and a half before the midterm elections. This is such a huge unforced error that it beggars belief.

Compounding the situation, the person the Administration has sent to defend the policy is perhaps the person in the White House least suited to do so right now. Valerie Jarrett, who just last week referred to a dead gay teenager as having made a "lifestyle choice", has a serious credibility problem on this issue at the moment. Being gay is as much a "lifestyle choice" as being white or black, and to use that term as the Administration's senior GLBT outreach advisor is completely tone-deaf. To then send her out to defend the Administration's DADT policy, a policy they had to know would be extremely unpopular with a community that they have gone out of their way not to do any favors for since being elected, is just stupid. To so aggressively attempt to undermine any enthusiasm for Democrats among a substantial portion of their base a week and a half before the election hurts my brain.

But at this point, it's no surprise to see this White House get the policy right and the politics wrong. And frankly, after having spent the previous 8 years doing the exact opposite, I guess I can live with this arrangement.

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