On Why Method Matters, Or, Lawrence O’Donnell, Let’s Talk About DADT

I had the MSNBC on last Thursday night, and Lawrence O’Donnell was talking to Ari Berman of “The Nation” about the new Obama Campaign Chief of Staff, Jim “Not Part Of Loggins &” Messina.

In the course of that conversation O’Donnell said something about the recent repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) legislation that suggests to me that he could use a short reminder of how that legislation fits into the larger view of what the LBGT community is looking for as the march toward true civil rights continues.

Luckily for Mr. O’Donnell, I am available to help him out on this one; that’s why today we’re going to audit “LBGT Agenda 101”—or at least the “Cliff’s Notes” version, anyway.

“In name we had the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but we gave the lie by our acts to the words of the Declaration of Independence until 1865; and words count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts. This is true everywhere; but, O my friends, it should be truest of all in political life. A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics…”

--From Theodore Roosevelt’s The New Nationalism speech, Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910

So the first thing we better do so all this can make sense is to give you a bit of transcript to read, and the context into which it fits. I’m going to highlight what is particularly important to this discussion.

O’Donnell and Berman were, as we note above, talking about Jim Messina (Berman has an article up at “The Nation” entitled Jim Messina Is Alienating Obama's Base), and Berman was explaining that folks on the left have concerns about Messina because of his history working for Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff, and as Chief of Staff for Max Baucus (who is today one of the most “corporate” elected officials working at Senate, Inc.).

This includes the LBGT community, who have already had trouble with Messina; some feel he tried as hard as possible to bury the DADT repeal issue on the theory that there’s no need to fight needless fights when the LBGT community ain’t gonna be voting Republican anytime soon anyway.

Now here’s the part of the transcript that we care about; Berman will be speaking first:

…And that`s all we can do, is look at what has he done. And in his time at the White House, in his time working for Baucus, he`s clashed with Democratic activists, with grassroots organizers over and over and over again. And that`s a pattern through his career that I found in this article.

O`DONNELL: On Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell, you have complaints about how long it took and -- but they succeeded.

BERMAN: Absolutely.

O`DONNELL: So when you succeed -- in my experience, working in the Senate, there`s all sorts of tensions and negativity within the party as you`re moving toward a goal. And then when you succeed everybody forgets it. They go hey, we did it.

So…Lawrence…let me explain what you got wrong here:

Most of the time, when you succeed in the Senate, you’re pursuing a single legislative item, and success is a good thing indeed.

But DADT repeal can’t be considered in a vacuum, and it is only one of four legislative “fronts” on which the battle for full civil rights has been joined.

I write a lot about Social Security, and legally married same-sex couples can’t collect those benefits the same way opposite-sex married couples do; the same is true with Medicare…and forget about “Married – Filing Jointly” at tax time.

All of that is because of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and its repeal is the second metaphorical “front” in our civil rights battle.

The law could be overturned in the courts, but a lot of folks assume that the issue will rise to the Supremes and they’ll “find” a reason to uphold DOMA.

That means Congress might the only place to get something done (and a lot of the same folks think Messina slow-walked the issue in ’09, which might have been the best chance the Democrats had to move this along). Now that the ’12 Presidential is coming up—and DADT repeal was handled the way it was—it’s presumed that Messina is going to be even less help than ever before.

If you’re gay and you’re looking for a job, everyone from Cracker Barrel to Exxon/Mobil seems to look down on you, on one level or another (and if you’re perceived to be a transgendered person, it can be even worse).

After you get the job, if your boss thinks you’re part of the LBGT community, it might get you fired with no real legal recourse…but if Congress were to pass an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), some of this might get better—and once again that makes last year’s battle over DADT relevant.

The fourth battle is the same issue in a different venue; just last month Minnesota’s Al Franken and Colorado’s Jared Polis introduced Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) bills in the Senate and House, respectively, designed to protect LBGT elementary and secondary students from harassment at the schoolhouse.

That’s the short and the sweet of the thing, Lawrence, and that’s why the means by which DADT repeal was enacted is not going to make anyone forget much of anything.

After all, the guy who helped make life tough for those trying to get DADT repeal passed is now the Official Presidential Campaign Gatekeeper, and if the history of DADT repeal is any guide there isn’t gonna be a lot of Presidential help with the other three parts of this legislative agenda—unless, of course, the Administration needs to turn on the gAyTM for some reason.

Here’s one last example of how all this DADT repeal “process” matters.

You may recall this open letter from the Obama ’08 Campaign, where Obama said:

“…as President, I will place the weight of my administration behind the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act to outlaw hate crimes and pass a fully inclusive Employment Non‐Discrimination Act to outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same‐sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws.”

Now, knowing what we do about how DADT repeal passed…do you, Mr. O’Donnell, think it is more or less likely that the President will use the bully pulpit to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act—and do you see why the way one piece of legislation “Hail Mary-s” its way into law might impact the way a whole community feels about the rest of its legislative goals?

And for the LBGT community, this isn’t just “ordinary” legislation.

This is about the right to have a place to live, and a job, and the right to marry, and the right to have a marriage recognized everywhere, just like anyone else’s, and not getting separated from your partner of 20 years just because the county says so—and it’s also about how a community is sick and tired of hearing that “if you help us today…in a few more years you won’t have to be a second-class citizen any more”.

I really do like your work much of time, Mr. O’Donnell, but you really did whiff this one by concentrating entirely on the one thing and missing the larger picture—but hey, none of us are perfect, and hopefully this’ll be a useful object lesson for the next time.

Now get out of here and make some TV, ya crazy nut.

Comments

o'donnell gets a lot right...

...and every once in a while, we need to help him out a little bit.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965