Lame-duck victories boost Obama

'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal a tonic for disillusioned liberals

December 21, 2010|By Jules Witcover

Just when liberal Democrats were painting President Barack Obama as a traitor for swallowing extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, the American military that has often been lukewarm to him has come to his rescue.

Over the bitter objections of the country's most lauded military hero — one-time Vietnam prisoner of war Sen. John McCain — the top brass were instrumental this week in erasing the ban on gays serving in the armed forces.

With the conspicuous exception of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who argued that homosexuals in combat could be a "distraction" that could "cost Marines' lives" and damage "unit cohesion," the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported lifting the ban.

They provided the most influential backup to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who deftly guided the Pentagon through a careful study of armed forces sentiment on the issue, including among soldiers, sailors and Marines with combat experience on the unit-cohesion question.

Mr. Gates and the other joint chiefs insisted only that the Pentagon be given adequate time to effect the change, which now will be the case. One of their strongest arguments was that the ban probably was going to be lifted by the courts if not by Congress, with the danger of it happening all at once, without adequate preparation.

The demise of the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise approved under former President Bill Clinton gives Mr. Obama another success in the eyes of liberal Democrats, just as his fealty to progressivism has been under bombardment, imperiling his core political base.

The military chiefs have also given him a boost in supporting Senate ratification of the New Start nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia, with the Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, adding his voice for action before the end of the lame-duck session. "The sooner to better," he wrote in response to a plea from Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. McCain and his fellow Arizonan, Sen. John Kyl, were digging in their heels, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, hoping to hold on until the Republicans gain five Senate seats next month. But on Tuesday afternoon, the treaty attracted the 67 votes required to clear a key hurdle and seemed headed for final approval on Wednesday.

After the president's self-described shellacking in the midterm congressional elections, followed with what critics on his party's left regarded as a cave-in to Republican blackmail of the Bush tax cut extensions, he needed a stopper. He got it with the scrapping of the ban on gays and lesbians in uniform.

Mr. Obama's dealing with the restless Democratic left had been ham-handed and petulant in his initial defense of the tax-cut compromise. In his appeal for understanding in making the deal with a gloating Republican leadership, he allowed himself to whine about "sanctimonious" liberals holding to "purist positions," hardly an appeal to sweet reason.

Only later did he take particular pains to spell out the other benefits close to liberal hearts that he won from the Republicans in the deal, including the extension of unemployment benefits, college and child-care benefits. It took a conservative columnist to argue that the whole package amounted to a new economic stimulus, which probably could never have gotten through Congress under that much-maligned name.

The end of "don't ask, don't tell" also validated to the liberal Democrats Obama's decision to capitalize on the opportunity of a lame-duck session of Congress. He has made the most of the Democratic manpower in both houses before it is sharply reduced next month by the November midterm election results.

In the new congressional session, more than ever, Mr. Obama will need his Democratic base, which ironically is likely to be more liberal in light of the loss of many moderates in the midterm elections. So fence mending is imperative for him, and it would be a lot smarter than the name-calling of party liberals so chagrined about his new compromise with the Republicans, who were so unified against him in his first two White House years.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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