Don’t Ask Don’t Tell


After President Obama finished his State of the Union address last night, a conservative friend of mine sent me this text message: “They always talk about Clinton moving to the center. Obama is moving far right!”

I don’t agree that Obama is moving far right, but as I responded to my friend, “I always thought Obama was more conservative than Nancy Pelosi allowed him to appear.”

“True, but this was stunning,” my friend wrote back. “American Exceptionalism? Reducing corporate taxes? Maybe this Reagan stuff is affecting him. Liberals must be pissed.”

He was right. Judging by the post-address commentary on MSNBC, some far-left liberals definitely were pissed. As a matter of fact, I had to change the channel to CNN after some of the MSNBC commentary started bordering on whining. (As usual, CNN had the best middle-ground coverage of a presidential speech.)

Here’s what I don’t understand: Obama obviously leans more to the left than the right, so why does he continue to get so much criticism from fellow Democrats? Why don’t the Democrats act like the Republicans and support their president?

I’m not saying that Obama — or any politician, for that matter — is above criticism, but the president has delivered on some significant liberal agenda items, including comprehensive healthcare reform and abolishment of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. How far left do the president’s critics really expect him to go?

It long has been apparent to me that Obama is a pragmatist. He understands the political reality of his situation. He knows he must compromise with Republicans in order to get more done — but his left-leaning critics don’t seem willing to accept this. If they don’t wise up, they won’t appreciate Obama’s presidency until he leaves the White House — and by then, they may not have anyone left in the Oval Office willing to listen to anything they want.

It’s time for a political pop quiz:

Question: What’s the best way to know your efforts are truly bipartisan?

Answer: Factions on both sides of the political aisle are mad at you, yet many Americans believe what you did was the right thing.

Case in point: The tax-cut compromise bill reached through negotiation between President Obama and Republican congressional leaders. Nobody is 100-percent pleased with the bill, and that’s because both political parties had to give up something to get something in return.

That’s how it worked in the good old days before hyper-partisan talking heads ruled the cable news networks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yep, it was good old-fashioned compromise that created this deal.

And with all due respect to incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner – who recently said on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he rejects the word “compromise” as meaning the equivalent of showing weakness by not standing up for what one believes in – compromise is exactly what all our lawmakers should be focusing on doing these days.

When Obama easily won the 2008 presidential race, it wasn’t just because he was the anti-Bush and seemed to understand economics better than John McCain. People also bought into his campaign promise to change Washington, D.C., politics by bringing compromise back to the table.

Unfortunately, Obama’s victory on those grounds essentially turned the Republicans into what a Democratic operative keenly dubbed “The Party of No.” Whatever the Democrats wanted, the Republicans didn’t. And outgoing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to be approaching her job the same way as the Republicans. If the GOP wanted something, the “Speaker of No” didn’t. That’s partly what made Pelosi an easy target for Republicans during this year’s midterm elections.

Then, on Nov. 2, the Democrats got jolted back to reality by the “shellacking” they suffered at the polls. That seemed to remind Obama that the majority of Americans – whom I believe sit firmly in the center of the political aisle, or at least have aisle seats – want compromise, even if that’s not what some of them want to call it. That much was evident when he took control of the tax-cut situation and came to a compromise with GOP congressional leaders regarding the Bush-era tax cuts, extension of unemployment benefits and Social Security payroll taxes.

Now that they have some congressional power again, the Republicans now seem willing to compromise, too – at least on some issues, like repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays and lesbians, and finally moving forward on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

Should both political parties come to consensus about every issue? Of course not – their key differences are what make them unique from each other and draw loyalties from the electorate. But they need t0 remember that every issue is not one of those exceptions. If they don’t, we’re headed for gridlock.

This column was originally published in the Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010, issue of Ottawa Delivered.