Sidelining Spite

Punishing Democrats may be a case of cutting off our nose

Gay Iraq War veteran Dan Choi’s attempted re-enlistment last week illustrated the determination to serve that is one of our strengths in our fight for equality. His cries of outrage at President Obama, however, threaten a self-inflicted wound.

After the government won a temporary stay of the injunction against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last week, Choi told CNN he had “a message for Valerie Jarrett and all those politicians in the White House. … You have lost my trust and I am not going to vote for Barack Obama after what he did yesterday.”

That Obama has mishandled DADT repeal can hardly be disputed. Last year he told Anderson Cooper that the law was ”constitutionally valid” and that he therefore could not simply refuse to enforce it; yet Jarrett last week insisted that the president has declared it unconstitutional. Which is it, Prez?

Obama’s use of signing statements to justify ignoring laws he doesn’t like contradicts his claim that he has to defend DADT even though he opposes it. Constitutional scholars insist he has other options. For example, former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger argues that Obama could formally defend DADT in court but state he believes it is unconstitutional. Also, as commander in chief, Obama has latitude in enforcing military policy, in addition to his ability to issue a stop-loss order to end anti-gay discharges. He needs to show leadership. He needs to act.

But Choi is just too angry. As frustrated as I am with Obama myself, I cannot pledge not to vote for him in 2012. At this point he looks preferable to any of the Republican contenders. Some liberals tout a challenge by Hillary Clinton; but not only is there scant evidence that she would have done better by us, a fight among Democrats would mainly help the Republicans.

As Clinton’s astute husband recently observed, decisions made in anger are usually mistakes. Enough with the boycotts; we need to focus on what we will affirmatively do. Sitting out the election will help our adversaries. Why would we want to do that? I know the rationale about teaching our weak-willed Democratic allies a lesson, but that’s like disfiguring oneself to punish an unfaithful husband.

Choi’s highly publicized activities illustrate an inconvenient truth: Getting attention is not the same as creating change. Politics is messy. Reform is hard, comes in fits and starts, and requires more than grandstanding and petulance. Setbacks require renewed, intensified engagement, not disengagement. We don’t need more drama, we need more grassroots organizing. We have the tools, the passion and the cause. In the case of DADT repeal, we also have the public support. Unfortunately, legislative repeal requires 60 senators.

2008 proved that liberals can win when motivated. To keep winning, we need to improve our long game. Our opponents are well-funded and resolute. If our elected allies are not strong enough, we need to develop better alternatives — not just pull a tantrum and help elect people much worse. We also need to avoid painting with too broad a brush. Impatience is fine: We should press politicians for more even as we thank them for whatever positive steps they have taken. But if we are quicker to burn bridges than to build them, we increase our isolation.

Political alliances are based not on friendship but on common interests. Instead of being governed by our anger, it is smarter to provide greater reasons for cooperation. Turning out in large numbers to help save Democratic congressional majorities, in addition to demonstrating our pragmatism and seriousness of purpose, would help prevent the setback represented by a right-wing takeover of Congress. Let’s act in our own interest, and that of our country.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at .

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