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Aaron Belkin Headshot

Happy Birthday Rahm

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Rahm Emanuel's fiftieth birthday is not until November 29, but the gay community has been working hard on his gift, and is in the process of delivering one hell of a present. Just at the moment when the White House was starting to sweat over its failure to follow through on promises to let gays serve openly in the military, the gay community took its foot off the gas pedal. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped pushing, the White House stopped listening.

Consider what President Obama told Anderson Cooper on July 13. When asked why he would not sign an executive order suspending the gay ban, he responded that he wants to ensure that, "we are not simply ignoring a congressional law. If Congress passes a law that is constitutionally valid, then it's not appropriate for the executive branch simply to say, we will not enforce a law."

Obama's talking point echoed the claims of gay activists who for weeks had been arguing that an executive order on gays would circumvent the will of Congress. As explained by a new "don't ask, don't tell" truth squad, this reasoning is incorrect. Congress passed a law known colloquially as "stop-loss" that gives the President authority to suspend any law related to military separations during national security emergencies. Gay activists well understand that an executive order would be consistent with Congressional statute, but they have continued to suggest that an order would be an end-run around Congress.

A new Palm Center policy analysis, to be released this week, shows that our community's efforts to block an executive order have taken the heat off the White House. The analysis, Self-Inflicted Wounds on "Don't ask, Don't Tell": How and Why the Gay Community Took the Pressure off the White House, explains why the proposal for an executive order first followed by legislative repeal later was starting to unlock the political stalemate in Congress until our community undermined it.

Why are some gay and gay friendly activists, journalists and politicians working so hard to block an executive order? Some are motivated by a heartfelt concern that any discussion of an executive order derails legislative efforts to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law. (Our forthcoming policy analysis questions the plausibility of such reasoning in depth). Others, however, seem more motivated by parochial concerns such as the desire not to offend a White House that clearly does not want to sign an executive order.

Regardless of their motives, the consequences of their efforts have been quite sad. Three, in particular, come to mind. To begin, gays have undermined the national security argument which took a decade to establish in the public's mind. Part of the reason to sign an immediate executive order is that the military continues to fire badly needed talent such as Arabic linguists. John Shalikashvili, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the ban undermines national security. President Obama has made this claim as well. In disavowing the need for immediate action, and given that the prospects for quick legislative repeal seem slim, the gay community cedes any sense of urgency about the need to protect national security.

In addition, gay efforts almost certainly have contributed to declining media interest in the issue. Here is a June 8 clip from the Rachel Maddow show which illustrates the typical tone of media coverage when the agenda focused on the executive order idea: "Well, since he [Obama] has been a 'fierce advocate in chief,' has he repealed the 'don`t ask, don`t tell' policy? No. Has he pushed Congress to repeal the policy? Not really. Has he hit the pause button on investigating members of the military to ferret out who`s guy and who`s not? No, he has not. Has he used his stop-loss powers to put a hold on dismissals of people under the policy? No. No, he hasn`t. In fact, as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, 'president fierce advocate' actively still is firing people from the U.S. military because they`re gay."

Once it became clear that Obama could end gay discharges with the stroke of a pen, the tone of media coverage shifted immediately from "isn't it terrible to fire gay Arabic linguists" to "why isn't Obama doing anything." And it was this shift that made Rahm Emanuel sweat. Roughly half a dozen times, Press Secretary Gibbs was grilled as to why the administration would not sign an executive order. On more than one occasion, the tone of questioning approached outright mockery. Gibbs said that the President would not sign an executive order because he wanted a more durable solution. One journalist responded by noting that Harry Truman integrated the military on the basis of race with a 1948 executive order and wondered if our policy of racial integration in the military is "durable." More and more people started to call for a two-step strategy starting with an executive order and followed by legislative repeal.

Since gay opponents of executive action have started to achieve more traction, however, notice what has happened to media interest in the issue. A Lexis-Nexis search of major print and broadcast media and blog posts reveals that in the 106 days between the presidential inauguration and the first mention of the executive order idea on May 7, the media mentioned "don't ask, don't tell", on average, 5.6 times per day. In the 68 days between the introduction and President Obama's July 13 (misleading) remarks about his unwillingness to sign an order, the media mentioned the policy 19.1 times per day. In the ten days after those remarks, the media mentioned the policy only 11.4 times per day. As the gay community took the heat off the White House and failed to hold the President accountable for misleading remarks, media coverage tapered off (and the tone of media coverage softened as well).

Finally, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has again resorted to using conditional language about the gays-in-military issue, saying he would weigh in "should this law change," rather than "when" it is repealed. He is the first member of the administration to use conditional language in months. Again, almost no one in the gay community or the media, and certainly not the major gay rights groups, held him accountable. It is hard to imagine that Mullen would have resorted to his old use of conditional language if gay groups had continued to pressure the administration to sign an executive order

Every ounce of activism directed towards the exclusive legislative strategy as opposed to the two-part strategy of executive action first followed by legislative repeal later enhances the ability of the White House to invoke its old pass-the-buck strategy of explaining inaction in terms of a lack of votes in the Senate. Calling for an exclusive emphasis on legislative repeal is perhaps the greatest gift gay rights groups could give the White House. Happy birthday, Rahm.