Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rep. Alcee Hastings on the Political Calculus of the Obama Administration: I Do Not Understand

Yesterday, I recounted what happened recently when Representative Alcee Hastings tried to push forward a bill re: military appropriations that would have effectively abolished the don’t ask, don’t tell policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military. Rep. Hastings reports that colleagues and the White House itself pressured him to remove his bill from consideration.

There are a number of good follow-ups to this story online today, probing the White House involvement, and asking how it can be that Candidate Obama professed such determination to end a policy he knows to be unjust and discriminatory, while the White House under President Obama’s leadership seems to be blocking legislative attempts to end DADT. What makes this harder to understand is that President Obama has repeatedly justified his own refusal to end the policy through executive fiat by punting to the legislative branch. He claims that DADT can be ended effectively only through Congressional action.

I recommend Joe Sudbay’s summary of the story at America Blog yesterday evening. Sudbay is predicting the White House’s involvement in blocking Rep. Hastings’ bill is going to lead to another of those embarrassing parties for A-list gays at the White House, like the one the administration threw a few weeks back to try to build bridges with the gay community after slapping us in the face with its brief defending DOMA.

I’d add—and I want to continue stressing—that anyone watching how this administration has handled its morally-based promises to the gay community, once it took office, has a significant key to the current health care debacle. The administration is proving to be consistent in its approach to issues demanding immediate attention if we want to get our democracy back on track, and when those issues are based in moral imperatives essential to the viability of democracies.

Just as with its promises to the gay community, where prior to the election, Mr. Obama was unambiguous about the policy’s discriminatory nature and about the need to end it, and then once he was elected he announced that ending DADT is going to require further study and dialogue, health care reform has gone from being an unambiguous, morally based goal requiring immediate attention, to something quite different. Before his election, Mr. Obama supported health care reform unambiguously. Now we're told that it requires endless study, consultation, bipartisan action that brings to the table anyone and everyone (but most of all those with a vested interest in keeping things as they are).

This is not a formula for moving forward. It is a formula for keeping things as they are, or, at most, for changing them incrementally but not substantially. It is a formula for keeping powerful, wealthy economic elites happy, and for appeasing religious fundamentalists who prove useful to those elites by diverting our attention from the rapacious economic activities of those elites.

I’m interested in how clearly Representative Hastings sees what’s going on with this administration, at a fundamental philosophical level, and how the penchant for calculating pragmatism is undercutting the moral claims of the administration, particularly in the area of human rights. Yesterday, he gave Rachel Maddow an interview at MSNBC.

After having noted that someone from the White House met with him to discourage him from promoting his legislation to end DADT, Rep. Hastings told Rachel,

Their thinking, Rachel, is different than I believe yours and mine would be. I have a different political calculus. If something is bigoted and if your intent is to see to it that it does not continue, then I did not understand the leadership of Congress or the White House saying the time is not right.

A different political calculus. If something is bigoted and if your intent is to see that it does not continue, then I [do] not understand [deliberate delays] . . . .

These are powerful statements. Rep. Hastings is saying, simply and clearly, that once anyone recognizes that a practice is bigoted, that it is unjust and denies human rights to others, one has a moral obligation to work to end that practice.

Seeing and recognizing injustice implicates the one who sees and recognizes. It is impossible to lay claim to being a moral agent when we admit that we see and recognize a moral imperative which implicates us, and then we do nothing.

And as Rep. Hastings says, what makes this behavior—this “different political calculus”—all the more perplexing with the Obama administration is that polls show that a very large majority of Americans, including ones in the military, see and recognize that DADT is unjust, discriminatory, and needs to go.

This is not even an issue that requires Mr. Obama to spend political capital or to stick out his neck and risk a great deal, if he chooses to do what is right.

Like Rep. Hastings, I do not understand.