WASHINGTON -- Any time you see a politician parsing his own language, it is a better-than-even bet he is in the soup -- as President Clinton now appears to be on the question of whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the armed forces.
The controversy, moreover, could come to a boil this summer just at the time the new president will be trying to build a consensus behind a plan to reform the health care system, a priority for Clinton second only to winning approval of his economic program.
It all seemed so simple during the 1992 campaign when candidate Clinton flatly promised to revoke the prohibition against gays in the military. But the heat of the reaction to the proposal once he took office forced him to temporize by asking the Defense Department to make a study of how the order could be implemented.
That report is due by July 15, but the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings opening next week may keep the issue on the front burner for several weeks. Sen. Sam Nunn, the committee chairman, is against repeal of the ban and, shocking though it may seem, committee chairmen have been known to use such hearings to beat White House proposals into a bloody pulp.
In this grim context, Clinton appeared to be trying to give himself some wiggle room when he said at his press conference Tuesday that it might be possible to make "appropriate distinctions on duty assignments" between heterosexuals and homosexuals. If the Defense Department report made such a recommendation, he said, "I wouldn't rule that out, depending on what the grounds and arguments were."
The following day White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos, protesting that there was no change in Clinton's position, confirmed in effect that there had been. Arguing that there is a "presumption" against "discrimination of any kind," he suggested that presumption might have to be balanced "against the need to maintain military morale and order and cohesion."
Then the president himself, in a televised interview with CBS, insisted that nothing had changed.
"Nothing I said is in any way inconsistent with anything I've ever said before about this," he insisted. "What I said was, if they [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] made a recommendation to me, would I review it and consider it? Of course I would," he said. "I asked them to study this . . . this is not an area where I have expertise. I have to listen to what people say."
Clinton was using one of those legalistic dodges presidents often employ on such occasions. He was saying, in effect, that I'm still against discrimination, but I just can't arbitrarily refuse even to listen to the experts in the military and I never said I would.
What Clinton is likely to get from this convoluted rhetoric is the worst of both worlds. This is an issue with extremely high emotional content on both sides, very much like abortion rights. And the history of the political debate over abortion rights is that the politician who tries to waffle is scorned on both sides.
To no one's surprise, prominent gay leaders were outraged by Clinton's comments at his press conference. David Mixner, a friend and political ally of Clinton for more than 20 years, described himself as "extremely distressed and at times very angry" about the president appearing to row back from his original position. Mixner's reaction carries particular weight because of the reputation he has acquired over his long history of activism within the Democratic Party as a voice of moderate good sense.
But Clinton is not going to win compensating approval from those who feel such a demonstrably strong revulsion against the prospect of gays in the military. Nor is he suddenly going to become the favorite of those leaders of the religious right who have seized on the homosexual rights issue as a principal tool for mobilizing their political strength.
The volatility of the gay rights issue became unmistakably clear during the 1992 election campaign, most starkly in some of the rhetoric at the Republican convention in Houston. And it is one in which there is a huge gulf between those on the one side who see the question as one of ending discrimination against a group of Americans, and those on the other who see it as countenancing immoral behavior.
There is, in short, no middle ground or hiding place. It is an issue that cannot be parsed away.