Chuck Hagel, Gay Rights, and Liberalism's Incoherence

Chuck Hagel, apparently President Obama’s choice to be secretary of Defense, has really stepped in it. Or rather, everyone has just been reminded that he stepped in it big time in the past, and now he’s furiously trying to backpedal his way out.


In opposing President Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel — spawn of Spam (the Hormel meat family) and large Democratic contributor — to be ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997, Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, said that an “openly, aggressively gay” man should not represent the United States. As reported recently in the New York Times:

“They are representing America,” Mr. Hagel said in an interview with The Omaha World-Herald. “They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”

Now, of course, Hagel calls his remarks “insensitive,” claims they “do not reflect my views,” and apologizes “to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.” (That’s more than he’s said to Jews for his remarks about Israel and the Jewish lobby, but then Jews have proven themselves so loyal to Democrats that they can be stepped on with impunity.)

At first Hormel, still a big Democratic money man, was having none of it. In an interview with the Washington Post he “questioned the sincerity of the apology”:

“I have not received an apology. … I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received, but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part.” Hormel added that the apology appeared to have been given “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.”


But it may work, as Washington apologies of convenience often do. Remember when Joseph Lieberman turned on a dime, abandoning a career of principled opposition to racial preferences to grovel before Maxine Waters and the Congressional Black Caucus to silence black opposition to Gore’s selection of him as running mate?

In his inaugural address as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference in 1995, Lieberman had said that preferential treatment based on race or gender is “patently unfair,” adding: “You can’t defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunity, which is what America’s been about.” Such preferential policies, he concluded, have the effect of “breaking ties in civil society that hold us together.” Two years later he was a strong supporter of California’s Prop. 209, outlawing such preferences. But with the prospect of his vice presidential nomination dangling on a thread, he appeared before Maxine Waters and members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the first day of the 2000 Democratic Convention and abjectly recanted, proclaiming: “I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action, and I will support affirmative action.” Labor Secretary Alexis Herman explained that when Lieberman supported restrictions on racial preference he did so “without knowing the full impact … he did not understand the intent of Proposition 209.”


Interestingly, the job-seeking about-faces from both Lieberman and Hagel turned on controversial and contested notions of civil rights. And just as Waters, the Black Caucus, and the civil rights establishment used Lieberman’s past opposition to racial preference policies as a club to pound him into promised fealty to affirmative action forever, so today’s gay activists are attempting to seize on Hagel’s past “insensitivity” to gay rights to secure his endorsement of their agenda. Thus Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, a gay rights organization, welcomed Hagel’s apology and “look[s] forward to learning more about his commitment to full LGBT military equality.”

On second thought, Hormel himself obviously also now sees the possibilities of forcing Hagel to hew to the gay activist agenda. He issued the following statement:

Senator Hagel’s apology is significant — I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything. While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal — they are a clear apology. Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted — perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too. His action affords new stature to the LGBT constituency, whose members still are treated as second class citizens in innumerable ways. Senator Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families. If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.


Although both Lieberman’s and Hagel’s forced recantations involved demands that the prospective nominee reject their past civil rights positions and get in line with the current orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, there is one very significant difference, a difference that reveals the incoherence of the contemporary liberal views of equality and discrimination.

That difference: Lieberman was excoriated and threatened with expulsion from the liberal fold because of his previous allegedly principled commitment to colorblind equality, to treating individuals without regard to race, gender, or ethnicity. Liberals today, by contrast, appear to be demanding that Hagel promise to treat gays in the same fashion that went out of fashion for blacks and that got Lieberman in trouble — “like everybody else,” without regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But do Ambassador Hormel, other gay activists, and liberal leaders really want gays to be treated “like everybody else”?

If they do — as I argued here three years ago: “Does Sexual Equality Require Preferential Treatment?” — that would mean that gays and their supporters would be willing to settle for sort of a second class equality, for being deprived of the preferential treatment that liberals now say equality demands for members of favored racial and ethnic groups. If colorblindness now locks racial inequality in place, as liberals argue, why isn’t treating gays just “like everybody else” gay bashing? The liberal view of equality and hence of the discrimination that should be barred, in short, has become incoherent.


I have long thought, as I argued three years ago and have seen no reason to change my mind, that the reversal of liberals on the meaning of equality has fueled the opposition to gay rights proposals. If voters had not witnessed liberals abandon — indeed, reverse — their dedication to colorblind, “without regard” racial equality, I suspect they would be much more willing to prohibit discrimination based on sexual preference.

Because of liberal incoherence on the meaning of equality, however, when Chuck Hagel promises his “commitment to their [LGBT] civil rights” we can be sure that he has no idea whatsoever what he is actually promising, and neither does anyone else.


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