"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Optimism

[ Posted Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 – 18:00 UTC ]

Optimism is growing this week that Congress will repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy of not allowing gays to serve openly in the United States military. To be more accurate, what Congress is proposing is a watered-down version of a full repeal. Which is ironic, because the purpose of their "compromise" is to fix DADT -- which itself was the original compromise on the issue that President Clinton signed.

But it may be enough, for now. If it passes. President Obama and the White House had a much more incremental plan, which was for the Pentagon to study the issue all year long, publish their study right before the end of the year (conveniently, after the midterm elections), and then next year Congress could tackle the issue from their end. This was to provide political cover for Democrats, so they didn't have to vote on such a hot-button issue in an election year.

But the Obama White House should be given credit for commissioning the study in the first place, and for getting the biggest Pentagon brass on board the effort. Gay rights advocates fault Obama for moving too slowly, and they certainly have a point, but it should be pointed out that without Obama in the White House in the first place, the issue would be going exactly nowhere right now.

President Obama famously campaigned on being a "fierce advocate" for gay rights. To be blunt, he has not been. He's been a reluctant advocate at best, and a foot-dragging incrementalist at worst, on the key issues on the gay rights agenda. But gay rights leaders have shown how to motivate the president to do something he'd prefer to put off. Obama met with gay leaders this week, in an effort to get them to back off until after the midterms were over, but they were the ones who changed his mind, instead of the other way around. They, quite rightly, point out that waiting is completely illogical at this point, since everyone expects Congress to be more Republican after the elections this year. Next year, in other words, it's going to be harder -- not easier -- to get a bill through Congress. The compromise Obama and the gay rights leaders reached was to pass a bill this year, but leave the language intentionally vague, so it instructs the Pentagon to act only after the study is complete, and at the Pentagon's leisure after that point. It's not a ringing and complete repeal, by any stretch of the imagination.

But that doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile thing to do, or that it's so vague as to be meaningless. It will be a historic step along the road to full repeal, and it will give the Pentagon brass who support repeal some political cover among other brass who oppose it -- "Congress is going to tell us to repeal it anyway, so we might as well do it in an orderly way." And it will also put both Congress and the president on record as pushing the Pentagon to repeal the policy.

The real question inside the Beltway is whether it will pass or not. Some pundits are saying it's got the votes, and some are saying it might not. Although repealing DADT polls at a whopping 70 percent approval rate among the public at large, it is still a political hot-button issue for some, including some Democrats worried about the upcoming election.

But the flip side of this coin is seldom talked about. And that is that this time -- irony of ironies -- it is a wedge issue that can be used against Republicans. When DADT was enacted, the general public acceptance of gay rights was at a much lower level than it is now. Now, the hottest gay rights issue is gay marriage -- which wasn't even seen as being serious enough to warrant discussion back when Clinton signed DADT. We've come a long way as a country, in other words, since then. And while gay marriage still loses at the polls and is not overwhelmingly accepted by the public, allowing gays to serve honorably in the military is seen by most these days as being a non-issue. Especially by those who are the right age to serve.

When Democrats bring the issue up for a vote, Republicans can almost be counted on to say some seriously ugly things about it. They will do so, confident that they've got the public behind them. Well, they may still have their district or state behind them, but overheated rhetoric is not going to help their party out at all on the national stage this time around. This is likely going to come as a surprise to some Republicans, and their own leadership may be put in the same position they face now with Rand Paul -- either defend ugly language, or publicly rebuke a member of your own party.

In other words, this issue could be a winner for Democrats, who can be seen as championing tolerance and the right of all Americans to serve their country, while Republicans fight to uphold intolerance and bigotry.

Gradual and incrementalist though this measure may be, if it passes it should be seen by the gay community as a huge win, which puts this country irrevocably on the path to full rights in the military. Some may grumble that it's not going to happen fast enough, and that it doesn't do enough in the meantime to end the discrimination. Gay rights advocates, quite plainly, do not trust the Pentagon to adequately follow through on the rather lackadaisical instructions they've been given by President Obama, or to follow through on the compromise language in the bill being debated.

I remain more optimistic, though (full disclosure: I am not gay, and have no inclination to serve in the military at this time, so I have to admit it doesn't really affect me). The Pentagon is, as Obama used to say about the American economy, not a speedboat -- it's more of an aircraft carrier. It is slow to turn, in other words. President Obama could, as some were pushing him to do, have issued an Executive Order to the military to abolish DADT on his first day in office. But then Congress would have seen no reason to act on their own, and future Republican presidents could have overturned the policy with the same stroke of a pen Obama used. Getting Congress on board, and getting the Pentagon on board, is going to mean a much more permanent sea change for the military, and one that likely will not be able to be reversed in the future.

The slow pace is indeed frustrating. And the vote count is going to be close, no matter what happens this week (especially in the Senate). It's not a done deal, in other words. But -- incrementalist though it may be seen as now -- it is also going to be historic if it passes. In the future, this Congress and this president are going to be remembered for getting rid of DADT. The fact that it is happening at all in an election year makes it all the more impressive. To be sure, DADT will not disappear tomorrow or next week or even next month if the measure passes. But this may be the most important step towards that goal that has come out of Washington since DADT was instituted. For now, I remain optimistic.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Optimism”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Nothing comes easy for this administration, does it? It would be nice if they could catch just one break, before all is said and done.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:


    Side ads should be showing up on everyone's screen now, as well as the Banter list. Let me know if there are any problems. I posted a more detailed comment on the recent "Program Note" so go have a look at it, I'm going to bed...


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Nothing comes easy for this administration, does it? It would be nice if they could catch just one break, before all is said and done.

    It's only going to get worse...

    I think Obama is approaching his, "I am NOT a crook!" moment....


  4. [4] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    I'm always amused by the demand for action NOW NOW NOW!!! on DADT. One year would be considered lightning-fast for a weapons procurement decision.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    I'm always amused by the demand for action NOW NOW NOW!!! on DADT. One year would be considered lightning-fast for a weapons procurement decision.

    Very good point..

    When the US is involved in two wars and a third one brewing, it is definitely NOT the time to attempt social experiments within the US military..


  6. [6] 
    dsws wrote:

    "But that doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile thing to do, or that it's so vague as to be meaningless."

    Uh-oh. Commentary on the Obama administration is now complete. What will the blogosphere do for the next two-and-a-half / six-and-a-half years?

  7. [7] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:


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