In yet another display of cowardice that at this point should surprise no one, the White House last night announced that a widely expected executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees isn't going to happen -- or, rather, won't until after the general election.
It's a surprise, to say the least. The Departments of Justice and Labor had reportedly already signaled their support. LGBT activists called to the meeting had naïvely hoped that it was to announce a shift in the president's position on marriage equality. They were in for a shock.
The justification for this sudden about-face is that a prohibition on firing people because of their sexual orientation could be labeled a "job-destroying rule" by the Romney campaign. This seems to have been offered without any sense of irony. It is difficult not to notice that many other regulations this straightforward have escaped this level of scrutiny. After all, the rule would only have applied to federal contractors. A bill barring discrimination against LGBT employees has been in the works since 1974 but has yet to be adopted by Congress.
President Obama has always been rather timid in expressing the ferocity of his alliance with LGBT people. And, as could be said of his leadership in general, his boldest displays tend to be handled by delegates, overseas. This is more progress than we would get from any Republican who could survive the nomination process, of course, which is exactly the standard Democrats have held themselves to since 1994.
Still, this particular punt is exceptionally cowardly, even by this standard. To put it in perspective, a majority of the American public has favored broader-than-this workplace protections for LGBT people for my entire lifetime. Among likely 2012 voters, 74 percent currently favor national protections, not just for federal contractors. Some 66 percent of Republicans are also now on board, as are 61 percent of senior citizens and even 50 percent of voters who say they personally hold unfavorable views of gays and lesbians. And that poll leans conservative -- as far back as 2002, some polls were reporting 85-percent support for the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Basically, a vast majority of Americans of all stripes think it's just plain wrong to fire someone for being gay and that the law should have a role in preventing it.
One wonders what level of support the basic right to earn a living needs for lawmakers and the Obama administration to hop on board. Would 90 percent do? What about 95 percent? Can every single person in America simply sign a sworn affidavit saying that we support it, or do we all have to literally join hands on the White House lawn and sing together out in one golden voice?
Apologists will say that the order would have become a distraction, or a toxic issue, or some other nonsensical, abstract boogeyman from the land of make-believe. But public opinion is so far in favor of workplace protections for LGBT people, and Mitt Romney needs so desperately to realign himself with the center that he would be a fool to oppose it come November, and positively insane to make a campaign issue of it. The excuses are intellectually dishonest, at best.
In fact, the move serves only to reinforce the image of Obama as a weak, spineless surrender addict. It's an image he's fought hard in recent months to shed, and for the most part he has become a better leader and candidate in so doing. This kind of last-minute freak-out signals a regression that neither this country nor his reelection campaign need.
It's easy to single Obama out, of course, given his uninspiring record on LGBT issues and, well, the fact that he's the president. But the fact is that many Democrats and socially liberal Republicans are unreasonably petrified of LGBT issues. If the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress of his first two years had handed him an Employment Non-Discrimination Act, everybody knows that President Obama would have signed it. If Nancy Pelosi had had the votes (and if there's one thing that woman can do, it is count votes), everybody knows that she would have passed it. But the votes weren't there.
The votes weren't there because ever since Bill Clinton's infamous first attempt to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military left us with Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, Democrats have been petrified of overreaching on LGBT issues. They are still paralyzed by fear.
You see, the liberal establish is still stuck in 1994. The trauma of those midterm losses still has not left them. So they live in a time in which a majority of Americans are freaked out by the idea of gays in the military, not one that is quickly coming to embrace the idea of gay marriage. They live in a time in which Hillary Clinton is public enemy number one, not America's most popular living politician. They live in a time in which corporate ownership is the reason you can't get find good news, not the race to the bottom ignited by ever-increasing consumer choice. They live in a time in which presidential overreach on social issues, not inaction on the economy, is the reason they just lost the House.
Basically, they live in Portlandia. Seriously, on their off-hours, most even dress like it. When it comes to knowing when to fold and when to raise, Republicans couldn't ask for more sadly misguided opponents.
Voters are, fortunately, not stuck in 1994. But even if they were, a bar on workplace discrimination would be the one gay rights initiative they favor.
And while this kind of order would have had zero effect on Obama's ability to get reelected, it could have had a positive impact on the lives of actual people. In 29 states gays and lesbians can legally be fired for their sexual preference. In a whopping 38 states employers are free to fire someone for being transgender. A full 20 percent of transgender people report having lived through just that experience.
Normally this is the point in which I ask you, the reader, if the situation is anything short of insane. That seems a little pointless when so few would have ever thought otherwise.
Can the White House save face on this one? No. Another reversal would be the right thing, but the cowardice would become even more apparent. They can only hope to keep it quiet, really.
Let's make that as difficult as possible.