PRESIDENT Clinton made a choice July 19 in announcing his policy on gays in the military, one of the most politically vexing issues in his young administration:
* Advocates for lifting the ban on gays in the military got the speech. He made clear that his sympathies inclined toward lifting the ban further than was politically realistic. He even singled out the most outspoken advocates of lifting the ban for praise.
* Opponents of lifting the ban got most of the policy. The executive order Mr. Clinton issued would largely ban service by the openly gay.
In his speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Clinton reaffirmed his central principle that conduct, and not homosexual status, should decide fitness for service. He also cited the loyal service of many homosexuals in the military.
"I think what it means now is, don't-ask, don't-tell is really the law of the land," says Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos, referring to the short-hand description of a compromise policy that restricts service by the openly homosexual but does not inquire about sexual orientation.
The next step, which may come July 21, is for Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia to determine whether he is satisfied with Clinton's policy or if he will propose legislation to codify it in law. Mr. Nunn has been a leading opponent of lifting the ban on gays in the military. Other members of Congress expect their colleagues to follow Nunn's lead.
He had planned hearings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff July 20 for their reaction to the Clinton order. Senate aides expect that his decision whether to introduce legislation will be determined by what he sensed from the chief's testimony.
Clinton's order followed the recommendations of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who has worked closely with the Joint Chiefs to craft it. It does not appear far from what Nunn himself has proposed, Dr. Moskos says.
The White House is nine-tenths of the way to Sam Nunn, says a congressional aide. "We'll see if they go the rest of the way."
To settle the issue, even on Nunn's terms, would serve two important ends for Clinton.
First, it would close active public controversy over an issue that has identified Clinton with traditional social liberals and their interest groups from the first week of his presidency.
Second, although it may not improve his relations with the US military, it will at least help neutralize an aggravation between the armed services and the commander-in-chief.
Popular opinion has remained split on whether homosexuality is compatible with military service, according to CNN polls. The issue itself is not very important to the vast majority of Americans, perhaps not even to most homosexuals, says Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders.
But the issue has come to represent Clinton's indecisiveness and linkage to socially liberal causes, says Mr. Schneiders. And those are vote-changing issues for significant numbers of people.
Among White House staffers, nearly every conversation about Clinton's public opinion problems and liberal image goes straight back to the launching of the gay-ban issue during the first week of the administration.
Schneiders credits Clinton with good motives, at least: "It's a case where I think he was truly trying to do the right thing."
He agrees with others who point out that good intentions without a keen strategic sense are not enough. "It fits a general pattern of not knowing where they want to go," says a Senate aide. "So they end up going somewhere else."
Nunn, the aide believes, knew how the hand would play out from the very beginning.
In the military, Clinton faces a more pointed problem. His effort to soften the gay-ban has exacerbated a relationship already sour for many other reasons.
"You have never heard spontaneous remarks against a commander-in-chief like now," says Moskos, whose experience goes back through Eisenhower. The sense in the ranks, he says, is of "a commander-in-chief who doesn't like us."
Clinton's successful Vietnam-era avoidance of the draft and reports of White House staff treating officers with disrespect are powerful symbols to military personnel about Clinton's attitudes. Even his Memorial Day speech at the Vietnam veterans' memorial hit the wrong note, says Moskos, who was consulted on it by the White House.
The speech essentially asked that the old divisions of that war be behind us - as if the Vietnam veterans had wanted to go to war, says Moskos.
Overarching these symbols, Moskos notes, is a massive defense drawdown and a military pay freeze. Even "Ronald Reagan would have had trouble implementing that," he says.