Democrats Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Lead

Like 75 percent of Americans, I was profoundly disappointed this week when the Senate failed to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. As an American, I'm ashamed that my nation not only refuses to let gay people serve openly, but also conducts a cruel witch-hunt to try to identify gay servicemembers. As a Democrat, I'm heartbroken that, once again, my party seems to be in a constant state of cringing compromise.

Just before the vote, progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote:

I'm sort of intrigued by the psychology of members of congress who're positioning themselves on the wrong side of history here. Does anybody think that in the year 2050 it will be illegal for gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the United States military?

I'm baffled as well, but I wonder whether this attitude of inevitability is contributing to Democratic defeats. The eventual repeal of DADT and the legalization of gay marriage seem like such a demographic inevitability that it's hard to be as concerned about a temporary setback.

Heaven knows I've had this exact same attitude. Although I am a bisexual woman, and stand to gain from gay rights legislation, in November of 2004, I wished national gay rights groups would stop pushing the issue right before elections. I was worried that the issue would drive up turnout for conservative Christians and secure another victory for George W. Bush. If I could have waved a magic wand and tabled the issue for the next four years, I would have. Statistically, our odds of success were only improving. And wasn't it worth it to wait, to ensure we could act on other, more pressing issues?

When progressives see ourselves as on the cutting edge of a new order, although change may be urgent, it feels inevitable. When conservatives define themselves as the "man standing athwart history yelling stop," their every chance is a last chance and impossibly important. No wonder there's an enthusiasm gap.

Confidence in the moral rightness of our cause shouldn't lead us to complacency. At the very least, it delays change unnecessarily, while, in the meantime, people are being harmed. In the worst case, we delay action on other 'obviously correct' principles that don't even have demographic momentum behind them. The Democrats are so terrified of appearing 'liberal' right before the midterms, they have followed a paralyzing moderation with regard to legislative initiatives and parliamentary procedure.

The Republicans are routinely engaging in parliamentary terrorism when they refuse to allow any bill to be debated unless it clears 60 votes, but the Democrats should fight back. Harry Reid could force Republicans to actually filibuster bills instead of simply accepting defeat after a vote count. He could let the American people see that the Republicans prefer to deliberately waste time, rather than solve problems. Additionally, with a razor-thin margin on votes, the Democratic caucus could be playing hardball with its own members. Perennially lagging Senators like Blanche Lincoln could be stripped of their committee chairmanships as punishment for their constant frustration of the Democratic agenda. The Senate seems reluctant to play politics, afraid the 'partisan' label will cause them to lose elections. But why do they assume that they'll be any freer to take action in the next election cycle?

Even if the Senate is too frightened to take action, President Obama has a lot more power than he's been using. Obama has the power to unilaterally undo DADT by issuing an executive order. He has not. Obama has the power to end the abusive practice of extraordinary rendition for the purpose of torture. He has not. Obama has the power to shut down secret prisons in Afghanistan. He has not. He has the power to end US-sponsored torture and bring us back into accord with the Geneva Conventions. He has not.

Progressive politicians have considerably more power that they choose to exercise, and the defenses of electoral necessity or demographic inevitability look more and more like moral cowardice. If the Democrats keep hanging to the rear of the movement they purport to lead, they shouldn't be surprised that, while support for their platform continues to rise, support for the Democratic party continues to plummet.