Military's policy on gays tests Clinton toughness ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- No politician with the common sense of a gnat would choose to get into a roaring controversy over the rights of homosexuals. But President Clinton now has no choice but to press ahead with his plan to reverse the prohibition against gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say candidate Clinton might have been wiser to have hedged his promise to the gay community during the campaign. There was no reason to believe gays and lesbians would prefer either George Bush or Ross Perot. But Clinton didn't hedge, so the imperative for him now is to get the issue behind him.

The pressure on the president is heightened by his performance during the transition. Although they have been understandably reluctant to talk about it publicly, many Democratic professionals -- including members of the Senate and House -- have been complaining that the president-elect allowed himself to get rolled too often on his appointments.

They believe he caved in to pressure from activist women in his frantic search for an attorney general, the search that produced Zoe Baird in what Clinton now admits was too hasty a decision process. And they believe he caved in to Hispanic-Americans when he chose former Denver Mayor Federico Pena to be secretary of transportation and tossed Chicago banker and Democratic guru William Daley over the side. The Hispanic-Americans were upset because the Cabinet choices up to that point included four blacks but only one from their group, former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.

That history has raised the question of how tough -- or, perhaps more accurately, how resolute -- the new president will be in dealing with other power centers. In this case, those centers include military leaders and conservatives in both parties in Congress, among them Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the acknowledged icon on defense policy.

On paper at least, Clinton can accomplish his purpose without Congress playing a part simply by signing an executive order. But if those in Congress who disagree want to make an issue of the matter, they could do so with legislation to restore the ban -- a strategy that would force the president into a clear test of his leadership early in his administration. Nunn already has said he would hold hearings on the issue this spring, which is the usual congressional approach to any problem.

The politics of the issue is complex. On the one hand, opinion polls show Americans divided fairly evenly on the question of the rights of gays and lesbians. But what poll-takers and smart politicians understand is that the issue is not a prime concern of most voters. The potential problem lies with the ability of the most extreme opponents of the reversal to rally a public outcry using, among other things, those radio talk shows that have become such a pressure on Washington.

Thus, there is the real possibility of the new president facing a searing public debate over an emotional issue when his priorities should be developing and passing an economic program and finding a health-care system that will work.

There is a way Clinton can accomplish his purpose. Everyone knowledgeable about military life recognizes there are already many gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces although obliged to remain in the closet. The goal now would be to find a way to let them acknowledge their sexual orientation without its becoming disruptive. And that suggests restrictions on the conduct of both homosexual and heterosexual military personnel.

In fact, there are already enough military regulations to cover the conduct of anyone in the armed forces. But some new codification could make it possible for the nervous politicians to accept the reversal without seeming to have caved in themselves. Many of them would rather not have to vote on the issue ever.

It would be understandable if Bill Clinton privately wished he had never ventured into this particular political thicket. But the time for worrying about that was during the campaign; he can hardly argue, as he does on the deficit, that circumstances have changed. The only option is to deliver and show he is tough enough to be president.

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