I’ve been wondering this myself. Finally someone–turns out Kevin Drum–explains.
Officially, they say it’s because they feel obligated to defend all properly enacted federal laws as long as they’re even arguably constitutional. If that tradition were to die away, and presidents simply declined to enforce laws they disagreed with, chaos would ensue. […]
I suspect it actually has more to do with past promises Obama has made to various DADT stakeholders, especially those in the military. Basically, the deal he made with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs is this: I’ll let you control the process, write the rules, and move things along at a deliberate pace. In return, you’ll promise not to publicly oppose repeal. The tradeoff is simple: DADT repeal will take a little longer, but it will end up having the support of the military leadership and will therefore be less contentious and more permanent. This is a win for both Obama and the military.
For better or worse, deals like this are just the way politics works. If Obama chose to drop the court case and let DADT be abruptly repealed before the military had its ducks in a row, the Pentagon leadership would probably take it as a personal betrayal by a commander-in-chief who had given his word on how this would all play out. That’s not something a president can afford. (Bold mine.)
I buy that, well all except the part I put in bold type. Maybe Drum is right that “chaos would ensue” if a president let a district court’s ruling strike down a law. But is that self-evidently so? We know that chaos would not ensue if the Supreme Court does so. The article/post/whatever-it-is that Drum cites itself says,
John Aravosis, author of AmericaBlog, noted one example from 1996 when President Clinton preemptively refused to defend in court a proposed law that would have banned HIV-positive soldiers from the military because he believed it unconstitutional. Aravosis argues Obama can and should now do the same.
“We were told that all hell would break loose if it ever happened,” he wrote of Clinton’s refusal to support the law. “All hell didn’t break loose, a later Republican president didn’t retaliate, and locusts didn’t descend from on high.”
So, I’d like to know, why is it we think all hell would break loose now? Having asked that, in this instance we need not answer it because, as Drum points out, here Obama has other good reasons to fight the decision. But for the benefit of our children, can we come to some agreement as to whether presidents really must defend all laws reasonably presumed to be constitutional?