An awkward time to deal with military gay ban ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Timing is important in politics, and for President Clinton there could hardly be a less fortuitous time to deal with the polarizing issue of homosexuals in the military.

As a practical matter, there may not be any good time for this issue. Clinton's unqualified promise to reverse the prohibition against gays in the military has been a bone in his throat ever since he took office. But the last thing he needs right now is new attention focused on a question that seems to confirm this "different kind of Democrat" is in fact a vintage liberal on social questions.

The president does have the option, of course, of carrying out his original promise, writing an executive order reversing the regulation -- and then sitting in the White House waiting to have his head handed to him by Congress. Although it may be argued that a little show of principle might be a welcome gesture, there obviously is no political gain in being handed another defeat. If he had taken that course the first week he was in office, the reversal by Congress might not have been quite so damaging. Now he is a ship listing badly in heavy seas.

So, that option aside, Clinton must decide how far he goes in caving in to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the strong opposition in Congress and, not incidentally, in the country.

Although retired Sen. Barry Goldwater took it upon himself to support Clinton's original proposal, the president is not getting any help from his putative political friends. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the capital's resident icon on military matters, has been aggressively hostile to the whole idea from the outset. Nunn's public hearings on the issue, coupled with a photogenic visit to a submarine, drew extraordinary attention to the question -- and clearly contributed significantly to the rise in Clinton's negatives in the opinion polls.

Now there is Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, a Clinton appointee but another longtime friend of the military establishment, who appears ready to swallow a "compromise" that Nunn and the military leaders have written.

This is the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that says the services will stop asking recruits about their sexual orientation and will stop conducting witch hunts to ferret out gays -- while gays will be prohibited from declaring their homosexuality openly or engaging in homosexual activity either on or off the base. The draft of this proposal also would declare homosexuality "incompatible" with military service, the justification for booting them out if they declare themselves.

In other words, homosexuals could serve so long as they remained completely in the closet -- which, of course, is what they can do right now. The only difference would be that they would not be asked about it, so they would not have to lie.

But such a policy would fail to fulfill the basic purpose Clinton claimed when he took the position against the ban on gays during his campaign -- that is, to end discrimination based on sexual orientation by giving gays the same right to serve in the armed forces as anyone else. Like Lani Guinier, that principle has been thrown over the side.

At this point, it doesn't make sense to expect Clinton to walk the plank over gay rights. Indeed, one of the ironies of the situation is that reversing the ban on gays in the military is generally a low-priority item with activist gay rights groups who are far more concerned with such issues as more funding for AIDS victims.

And the president needs to preserve whatever credibility he can muster to see his economic plan through the House-Senate reconciliation process to final passage and then to begin a serious attempt to deal with reform of the health-care system. Being cast as the flaming liberal willing to risk it all for gay rights would be politically counterproductive at the very least.

On the other hand, however, Clinton doesn't have to swallow the grudging compromise that Sam Nunn, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Les Aspin seem prepared to recommend. There are already plenty of regulations to govern the conduct of anyone who serves in the armed forces.

The question is whether gays are entitled to an equal chance to subject themselves to those regulations.

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