As if Democrats needed more bad news heading into November's election, two gay-rights court cases broke into the news this week at just about the worst possible time for President Obama. The headlines reminded conservatives of something else they dislike about his administration and gave many Democrats another reason to be deeply disappointed in the president.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it will appeal a ruling by a federal District Court in Boston that declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Even though the president opposes the 1996 law that allows states to honor traditional marriage only, the department cited its "long-standing practice" of defending federal laws.
Then, the next day, word leaked from Justice that it was also likely to appeal another federal judge's decision invalidating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars openly gay men and women from serving. On Tuesday, the judge in California issued an injunction banning enforcement of the policy.
Republicans immediately pounced, more impressed by the president's support for gay-friendly policies than by his Justice Department's actions. Looking at conservative districts with endangered Democratic incumbents, the GOP targeted last spring's House vote to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"We are a nation at war," declared House Armed Services Committee ranking member Buck McKeon of California, warning that a policy change "could have a negative impact" on the military. Penny Young Nance, CEO of the half-million-strong conservative Concerned Women for America, called the court's ruling "one more example of an activist judge."
For a White House desperately trying to rally its liberal base and stave off deep losses at the polls, potentially more devastating than anything said by a Republican was the reaction of gay and lesbian activists. After embracing Obama in 2008, many are bitterly disillusioned by his failure to order Attorney General Eric Holder to accept the two court rulings.
The White House was less than sure-footed in handling the news. Press secretary Robert Gibbs refused to confirm whether the president will have the final say on the Justice Department appeals or if he has an opinion on the constitutionality of "don't ask, don't tell." Instead, Gibbs said merely that Obama wants to follow "the process" and wait for a December report from the Pentagon. The goal, Gibbs said, is to end "the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in a way that provides for a swift and orderly transition."
That is not what activists such as Robin McGehee and Richard Socarides wanted to hear.
McGehee is a mother in Fresno, Calif., who walked precincts for Obama in 2008. Now she is marching in the streets of cities where the president travels, brandishing protest signs and even getting herself arrested when she helped to chain two soldiers to the White House fence in March, one of several demonstrations there to press for repeal of the military ban on homosexuals. When Obama went to Miami last week, McGehee even dogged him by boat within view of a fundraiser the president was attending.
"We fell in love with a president that said he was going to do it differently, and right now we only have more of the same," she said. "Two years ago, I gave out campaign signs.... Right now, I wouldn't walk next door to talk about Barack Obama."
Her unhappiness led her last year to form a new group, GetEqual, and to warn that Democrats will notice that many gay activists are sitting out this campaign. "It doesn't mean we will not vote. It means we will vote more smartly," she said. "It also means we won't blindly give any more to the [Democratic campaign committees] just because Obama sends us an e-mail saying this election is important."
Socarides is as frustrated as McGehee is disappointed. He was President Clinton's senior White House adviser on gay issues, and he says he has personally lobbied Holder about the military ban. "I tried to press him, to no avail." The attorney general's stance is particularly frustrating to the gay-rights community. "People are very angry at him, and rightfully so," Socarides said. "He ought to be a champion for equal rights in this administration, and he seems to have been the opposite. It is unfathomable. It is incredible."
Socarides says he hopes that this case will not have a big impact on the elections. "The real question that gay voters are going to be asking themselves in these midterms is, do you come out to vote for the party that seems to not much care about your rights so that the party that is against you doesn't succeed." It is, he acknowledged dryly, "not much of a bumper sticker."
Megan Scully contributed to this article. The author can be reached at gcondon@national journal.com.