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Why Does Obama Use Executive Power for Everything But Gay Troops?

Sometimes moral and political leadership really are one and the same. Ending the needless firing of gay troops is one of those times.
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Under continued pressure from gay groups and those concerned with our national security, President Obama has refused to step in and halt the firings of gay troops, claiming it's "not appropriate" to use the president's "stop-loss" power "simply to say, 'we will not enforce a law.'" How, then, will the White House explain its recent use of presidential signing statements to do just that? According to the New York Times, the president has used signing statements -- which instruct officials to ignore portions of Congressional law -- five times to challenge nineteen provisions of federal statute, including a law restricting the use of U.S. troops in United Nations commands and a war spending bill that funds troops and U.S. operations worldwide.

These signing statements, when used by President Bush around 1200 times, were reviled by the Progressive community for usurping Congressional authority, and President Obama vowed during his campaign to use them with "restraint." Whether he has done so is debatable. But what's not debatable is this: A signing statement that tells executive officials to ignore Congressional law is a far more aggressive exercise of the president's power than using his stop-loss authority to allow willing gay service members to continue serving their country. This is because the stop-loss powers, unlike signing statements, have been explicitly granted to the president by Congress in a 1983 statute, 10 U.S.C. § 12305.

That means President Obama is willing to repeatedly use a controversial executive power which the American Bar Association has called unconstitutional while he refuses to use far less controversial executive authority -- and which is perfectly constitutional -- when it comes to "don't ask, don't tell." Why?

It's not news that politicians have long viewed gay rights as political losers. Never mind that some of us have viewed those politicians as moral losers -- it is something of a cliché that pressure groups call on political leaders to exhibit greater moral courage while their calls go unheeded because of fear the pols will lose their jobs. I have no wish to bang my head against a wall trying to make Washington into a moral place.

Opposition to gay rights by some Democrats is particularly galling because it's clear that many of them personally understand that gays deserve equality under the law. But what if Democrats' fears are not just cowardly but incorrect? What if the political risks of backing gay rights are hugely exaggerated? What if Dems, in fact, pay higher costs for appearing spineless than for backing the liberal policies that many believe in? Certainly a case can be made that this is why John Kerry lost the 2004 election, notwithstanding the now-discredited analyses that blamed the loss on gay marriage.

My boyfriend, who is in his twenties, believes the Dems risk losing a generation of young loyalists by failing to seize the mantle of gay rights before, yes, Republicans beat them to the punch. It may seem far-fetched today, but the GOP -- including John McCain's daughter, Meghan, and his top strategist, Steve Schmidt -- is quickly realizing that its survival depends on broadening its tent to include expanding gay rights, since growing tolerance of gay rights is a demographic inevitability.

Indeed, the fear and emotion that are clouding good judgment may be coming not from gays and lesbians impatient with the status quo, but from Washington types who are personally scarred by decades of Democratic weakness on national security issues and by the personal wounds of current White House staff who lived through Bill Clinton's disastrous effort to address the gay troops issue in 1993. This certainly includes Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was a young Clinton staffer that year working on gays in the military, and whom the Advocate calls "one of the most risk-averse human beings in Washington" who "can never stop thinking about winning elections." It also seems to include some gay groups themselves, whose presence in Washington may be swelling the risk-aversion that other gay activists have avoided.

Finally, it includes President Obama, who appears to have absorbed an unfortunate -- and incorrect -- lesson from the Democrats' alienation from the military since Vietnam: that to earn the trust of the brass, the president must plead with the uniforms for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Yes, Dems must win over the military; no, that is not done by having the president ask permission to act like Commander-in-Chief; it's done by showing the world that the president knows how to lead. Sometimes moral and political leadership really are one and the same. Ending the needless firing of gay troops is one of those times.