There is a similarity in the way that Obama has approached immigration and the Hispanic voting bloc, and his approach to gay issues—including “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and marriage equality—and the gay voting bloc. It boils down to this: Obama and the congressional Democratic leadership (Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi) will often not act when they can in order to maintain a campaign issue and mobilize the relevant bloc for the next election. But when Obama feels he is forced to act, he does so in a way that’s ensured to inflame polarization and partisanship, which he then attempts to use to his advantage.
On immigration reform, in 2007 Sen. Obama scuttled a comprehensive legislative deal worked out with John McCain and other immigration centrists in both parties, allowing him to use the issue in his 2008 presidential campaign. Then, having won the presidency and with his party in control of both houses of Congress, Obama, Reid and Pelosi did nothing for the next two years on immigration. Then they ran on the issue (albeit unsuccessfully) in the 2010 midterms. At which point the Republicans took over the House and blocked a somewhat bipartisan deal that had passed the Democratic Senate, as part of their own bloc pandering (for the anti-immigration vote).
Similarly, as I’ve blogged before, Obama and congressional Democrats did nothing to move ENDA out of committee during 2009-10, when in control of Congress. Nor did they attempt to put an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” up until the very end of 2010, when LGBT activists (excluding the lapdogs at the Human Rights Campaign) and several LGBT progressive bloggers went ballistic, since it seemed likely the GOP would win the midterms.
The Democrats’ endgame strategy was to attach “don’t ask” repeal to a Defense Authorization bill they knew Republicans would be compelled to vote against, even if they supported ending the ban. Gays serving or hoping to serve their country would lose out, but the issue could be used to mobilize gay voters in the midterms. And if the GOP took the House, Republicans could then be blamed for keeping the ban in place (which the GOP leadership, alas, would do, placating their party’s social conservatives base).
At which point, thanks mainly to Senators Susan Collins, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, by then an independent, a “clean” motion to end the military ban was pushed and passed, with a surprising amount of GOP support, but annoying the Democratic leadership that had wanted to stymie it.
The White House and Reid had decided that hammering home the “party of no” narrative and painting the Republicans as obstinate obstructionists was, to them, good politics. Since that wasn’t actually happening, they tried to make it appear that it was.
But Reid got outflanked. Collins, together with Lieberman, unexpectedly introduced a standalone bill to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell, intended to go around Reid’s roadblocks. After a great deal of lobbying to rally a number of other Republicans to support the bill — a necessary step to prevent a filibuster — the Collins bill eventually passed 65-31.
And that, of course, is just one example of the Obama way.