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Celebration and Mourning on the Same Day

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Life plays funny tricks on you. In families and among circles of friends it sometimes happens where you are mourning one person's death at the same time a new baby is about to be born, or a wedding is about to happen. Yesterday was like that for the progressive family, and it feels like the last couple of years have been that way all the time.

At the same time that we mourn the loss of the commonsense, bi-partisan, utterly moderate idea of the DREAM Act for immigrant students, we celebrate the long delayed and absurdly painful passage of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." What one hand giveth, the other taketh away. Through the unfortunately standard combination of Democratic bad luck, dysfunctional Senate rules, and poor political decision making, we couldn't have even a moment or two to celebrate a big victory without a horribly painful defeat happening the very same day. This is the story of the last two years. In early 2009, we get the biggest investment in public jobs and infrastructure when every progressive economist was screaming at the top of their lungs that the amount of money in the stimulus bill is way too inadequate to deal with the economic crisis at hand, so we see the official unemployment rate rise to 10%, and voters think the stimulus didn't work. We finally get a version of comprehensive health care reform, but it doesn't include the one thing most progressives were most passionate about, the public option. We get a banking reform bill that does some great things to rebuild the regulatory structure, but it does nothing on the most important problem to deal with, breaking up the big banks. Democrats pass wonderful policy changes that would be highly popular if any actual voter living outside of DC knew about them -- equal pay for women, tax cuts for the middle class embedded into the stimulus bill, a big improvement in the student loan system, a bill finally regulating the tobacco industry, a measure to help protect consumers from bank rip-offs -- and then never again talk about them.

So this weekend is one of those classic bittersweet moments for me. Both of these issues are really personal to me. I was in a lot of those White House meetings in 1993 trying to figure out how to get out of the corner Sam Nunn and Colin Powell had painted us into on gays in the military, knowing that if we had a showdown on the floor of Congress, we would get our asses kicked and get a policy locked in that was terrible. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise was a truly bitter pill to swallow, the best we thought we could do given the political dynamics in front of us at that time, and I have been hoping we could finally do the right thing for 17 years since, so this is a truly great day for me. But I have also done a lot of work on the immigration issue, and I have looked into the hopeful and earnest faces of the students who were fighting for the DREAM Act. These young people know the promise and ideals of America better than most of us that grew up here. they know the words on the statue of liberty. They know the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and the I Have A Dream speech. They know what America is supposed to be, and I know they are bitterly disappointed today, and I am disappointed with them and for them.

For the sake of the Democratic party and the broader progressive family, for the sake of our spirits and psychology, this should have been managed better than to put this great victory and this bitter pill together. When your troops are battered and their morale is beaten up, to finally have won a big victory on such an important issue should have been a moment of pure joy, but it got messed up. Democrats need to figure out how to take these victories and highlight them rather than pairing them with something awful.

Having said all that, even with the bitter defeat of the DREAM Act, progressives do need to take a moment here at the end of this tough year and celebrate the end of DADT. It is an important victory for all of us, not just for gays and lesbians. Progress has been made, justice has finally been done, and we should glory in it. We should give credit where credit is due, to all those brave gay and lesbian soldiers who have served their country twice, in our wars and in the cause of justice. We should give credit to the LGBT movement that made this happen, to the insiders and outsiders whose combined efforts made it happen. And we should give credit to the politicians who finally pushed it through all the barriers and hoops and prejudice to make it happen. Change is never easy, even when it should be, and it never feels like you are winning when you are in the heat of battle. But as MLK liked to remind us, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it curves toward justice. It will curve someday toward justice on immigration, and on the other issues we are still fighting on. We just have to keep battling.