My Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg argues that the … let’s call it the unfolding of Vice President Gore’s position on the great Joint Chiefs Gay Litmus Test issue was not sufficiently flip-floppy “to constitute a ‘reversal.’” Many commentators in Slate’s “Fray” echo this view, dismissing the whole controversy as a phony media game of “gotcha.” I respectfully disagree.
First, of course it was a reversal. Initially, Gore said he would require that any Chiefs nominee be “in agreement with” his gay policy. Then he came back and denied there should “ever be any kind of inquiry into the personal, political opinion of officers in the U.S. military.” The only “litmus test,” explained his adviser Robert Shrum, was the banal “constitutional one, civilian control of the military.” Under Gore’s Position No. 1, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf get bounced. Under Position No. 2, it would seem, they don’t, since they presumably agree with the principle of civilian control.
Weisberg says no, there is little functional difference between demanding “agreement” and Gore’s second position (demanding constitutionally-required “support”), since Gore knows that those who disagree are likely to sabotage his policy. The only difference, Weisberg says, is that demanding “‘support’ … leaves open the theoretical possibility of appointing a military officer so honorable that he will work assiduously to implement a policy he personally disagrees with.” But under Gore’s second position, Gore won’t know who personally agrees or disagrees with his policy, since he says he won’t inquire into the actual views of Chiefs candidates. (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell!)
More important, Weisberg assumes that Gore would never appoint somebody who disagrees, and might therefore sabotage the policy (among disagreers, only the theoretical perfectly honorable officer would pass muster). But it’s exactly that assumption that bothers those who worry about a “litmus test”–the idea Gore would give a privileged position to the gay issue, ruling out a candidate who was otherwise a military genius and inspirational leader solely because he had (in Gore’s mind) retrograde views on gays.
That implication, in Gore’s answer No. 1, is what made it genuinely troubling, a legitimate gaffe. It suggested the vice president was so keen on his gay policy that he would give it higher priority than other military issues, such as how to win wars (or counter the Chinese and Russian threats). Actually, given the crippling effect of the gay controversy on the first six months of Clinton’s presidency, it implied Gore was willing to give the gay issue priority over non-military issues as well. “Not that again!” you could almost hear voters saying. There are other, more important concerns for a president than integrating gays into the armed forces. It’s time for some sensible gay leader to point this out. (Andrew Sullivan, are you still reading this?)
At best, Gore’s gaffe revealed a candidate so eager to pander to a Democratic constituency that he lost his bearings and overstepped the bounds of good political judgment. That’s certainly forgivable–but wasn’t Gore’s unique selling proposition supposed to be his dull-but-sound reliability? You mean he’s boring and a bit of a hothead too?
P.S.: Weisberg’s right to ridicule Gore’s Position No. 2–why shouldn’t a president inquire into the personal views of a Joint Chiefs candidate, and try to appoint someone who agrees with him? A general who disagrees with a policy is indeed likely to implement it unenthusiastically. Gore could have said, “Yes, I’ll consider a candidate’s views–I’d be naive not to–but I’ll look at the whole man, and the whole range of military issues, not just this one issue.” In somersaulting from personal-views-are-a-litmus-test to “I’ll never consider personal views,” Gore leapt completely over this sensible, obvious answer. But that doesn’t make his performance any less of a reversal, or any more reassuring.