Late last week at a fundraiser in Chicago, President Obama was recorded making some remarks that he thought were off the record, but which were captured by an open mike. Most of the press reports about the incident focused on the president's comments bemoaning the lack of high tech gadgets at the White House. (When I worked there, as President Clinton's advisor on gay rights, we still had pagers.)
But Political Punch, the blog of ABC News Jake Tapper, reported that the president also shared some insights, for the first time publicly to my knowledge, about why his strategy for Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal had worked so well.
"We said if we do it in a way that the Pentagon takes ownership for, then not only can we get it passed, but we will have changed -- it will not be an event," Obama said. "And look what's happened! We passed that thing and it's like everybody's fine. Nothing's happened! It's the dog that didn't bark."
Now, I'm a big believer in the theory that when you are in charge and good things happen, you should get the credit. You deserve it.
So even though I was critical of Obama's "go-slow" approach to Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal during 2010-11, I was quick to praise his substantial contribution to the outcome, specifically saying that his ability to get the Pentagon on board had been an important factor.
But two things struck me about the president's views on how this played out.
First, the decision to let the "Pentagon take ownership" of repeal strategy and timing meant that we came very close to losing -- or at least losing the ability to get a vote on the issue while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. The Pentagon never wanted a vote on repeal in 2010 and made that very clear pretty much up to the last moment before the final bill passed.
It was probably a result of the White House's decision to defer to the Pentagon that repeal advocates lost two cloture votes on repeal -- before Democratic members of Congress, acting against Pentagon wishes, took control of the legislation and pushed it through at the very last second in late December.
Abiding by the Pentagon's wishes also means that there is no anti-discrimination rule (as part of legislation or otherwise) in place protecting gay service members from being fired in the future should the Pentagon change its mind -- because this is how the Pentagon wants it.
The other thing that struck me about what the president said was that he was right about the dog. It didn't bark.
But who thought it would?
Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal had the support of 3 out of every 4 Americans by the time Congress acted. Even gay marriage is now supported by over half the U.S. population, as a third national poll recently found. Gay rights are becoming mainstream progressive issues -- supported by the majority of Americans who care about civil rights and human rights.
Generally, Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal has turned out to be one of the most politically popular achievements of Obama's first two years in office. The public's positive reaction to it no doubt was an important factor in the president's recent decision to stop defending the anti gay federal marriage law in court. That historic and courageous action by Obama will be recorded as a substantial turning point in our struggle.
Congressman Barney Frank recently observed that, "overall, antigay prejudice is diminishing. It won't be used by the far right the way it once was. It just doesn't work anymore."
So why not do more? Kerry Eleveld recently pointed out in her recent piece on EqualityMatters.org, Doing the Right Thing for 2012, that the president's ability to claim victory on these human rights issues only enhances his chances for reelection. There is a lot left to be done which the president and our national gay groups agree on, none of which requires legislation and all of which can be done administratively. (The list includes five rather basic non-discrimination administrative actions outlined here and here.)
So, despite the craziness we are seeing from the Republican presidential candidates trying to curry favor with the tea party and other far right elements, let's continue to make progress and not waste any time.
Obama deserves credit for the positive steps taken directly by his administration. He can also take some credit for the progress made by Congress and others on his watch. Turning Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal over to the Pentagon got us military buy-in for fight, but could have meant defeat had Congress not stepped-in and taken charge.
Cross posted at equalitymatters.org