A vote on repealing the discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law is coming. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has stated an intention to hold on a vote on DADT as part of the annual Defense Spending Authorization Bill. It is truly surprising to see Mr. Reid and the Senate Democrats actually acting on what could be the final opportunity for years to come to pursue a policy goal of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
The massacre of moderate Democrats in the recent mid-term election can be seen two ways. The first and most popular view of the results seems to be that this was a repudiation of the Obama-Pelosi liberal agenda on health care and government intervention in business. This view is wrong. Independent voters don’t like Democrats right now, but they also don’t like Republicans. Overall, they don’t like that they don’t have jobs. They don’t like that the economy has been devastating to their families and there’s not significant improvement in sight. For independents, an election is a referendum on the last two years, and the last two years have not been good to most Americans. The people for whom the last two years have been good, the beneficiaries of the bailouts and Bush-Obama policies to save big businesses, spent millions to tell independents that they are worse off now than they were two years ago and it’s all the fault of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid Democratic leadership and the choices they have made.
The other, and in this author’s opinion, more plausible view of the election results is not that voters didn’t like the Democrats message, but instead that the Republicans had a message and the Democrats did not. President Obama, and with him the huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, was elected in 2008 by a coalition of moderate and progressive voters. For the moderate voters, President Obama represented a politician that was beyond the traditional partisan bickering and was going to focus as a President on the policies that affected the average American family. For the progressives, Obama represented a perfect counter-point to eight years of Bush leadership and an opportunity to move the country in a different direction.
Two years later, neither of these groups see the result they wanted. For independents, the Obama administration has served the interests of big businesses and made life harder for the average American. According to the Republican message, the bailouts were a failure, Obama stole from the American taxpayer to save fat-cat businessmen, and the health care bill will be a monumental failure that will cost Americans in the long run and an attempt by government to tell you what you have to buy. For the progressives, DADT is still in effect, the health care bill was gutted by concessions to moderate Senate Democrats and Republicans, Republicans continually thwart progress with threats of a filibuster that the Democrats just sit back and take, and the deficit reduction commission is recommending huge cuts to important government programs at the same time the President and Democrats are likely to cave on tax-cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Nancy Pelosi is not the problem. Her recent reelection as House leader should be seen as a rejection of the idea that the House leadership should swing to the center to satisfy moderate voters. Senator Reid’s movement toward actually holding a vote on rescission of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell represents a recognition the House has been pursuing the policies that the Democratic coalition of voters from 2008 wanted to see all along. This is the chance for Democrats to start creating a message before they recede into the minority. The Republicans have done an amazing job being the minority and still getting a coherent message out to which the country responded.
The House has passed the DADT repeal. A recent Pentagon study showed that attitudes within the military are largely indifferent and the repeal would have little effect on troop morale or performance in the field. Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen want DADT repealed. Though John McCain is holding out for another study, his wife has publicly asked for repeal of the law. On this issue, the country has arrived at the point of indifference. For those who believe that it should be repealed, eventual repeal, even soon, is a foregone conclusion. For all but a small minority, it makes no difference to most Americans’ daily lives whether the ban gets repealed.
For Democrats and a hope for a progressive agenda, this action is anything but indifferent. It’s a chance for Obama and the outgoing majority leadership to show they have a vision for where the country needs to go. It gives them the opportunity to show that the Democrats are the party that has the right ideas about when the government needs to get out of American’s private lives and when the government can proactively make Americans’ lives better. Republicans offer the counter-point of pulling the plug on important economic assistance while still intruding and telling Americans that want to serve their country that they can’t because of who they are.
Obama has a choice. He can spend the next two years conceding to Republicans to try to create a vision of bipartisanship. If he does that, the Defense Authorization Bill gets passed without the repeal of DADT. Alternately, he can return to the candidate Obama who had a vision for America. He can use this bill to show the Democrats stand for something, and that something is freedom, equality, and opportunity that will allow all Americans a chance to improve their lives.