Both houses of Congress have now passed the bill which repeals the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (DADT), which did not allow gay Americans to openly serve their country in military uniform. President Obama has scheduled a signing ceremony for the repeal bill this Wednesday. While this is a significant achievement on the civil rights/gay rights front, it is also a significant political achievement. And one man stands out as the driving political force behind the successful effort to repeal this discriminatory federal policy. Which is why, today, I'd like to publicly thank Senator Joe Lieberman.
As the old saying goes: "success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan." This political success is no different, really. Senator Lieberman didn't singlehandedly repeal DADT. He had a lot of help, and a few other Democrats showed both some real leadership and some real political savvy in the last few weeks. In fact, the three most powerful Democrats in Washington all had a hand in this victory -- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Barack Obama. They deserve thanks as well, as does every Democrat and Republican member of Congress who voted for this historic step forward.
Now, I realize that cynicism is quite popular among the leftmost parts of the blogosphere, and public thanks to the likes of Lieberman, Reid, and even Obama isn't exactly the norm these days. But Lefties everywhere should be prepared to give credit where credit is due -- no matter how begrudgingly. Because without the work of Reid, Obama, and yes, even Joe Lieberman, DADT would not have been repealed this weekend -- and would be in place for the foreseeable future, with a new Republican House about to take control. Repealing DADT simply would not have been on the top of incoming Speaker John Boehner's list of things to do. In fact, DADT repeal would not have even been on his to-do list. Meaning the policy would have stayed in place for at least two more years, or until the federal courts got rid of it (assuming the Supreme Court would have voted to end the ban -- which is a big assumption).
President Obama was the one who set the timetable. If repeal had failed, he would have gotten an enormous amount of blame from the Left for delaying congressional action until the lame duck time of year. But his gamble paid off, in a big way. For once, I have to agree that Obama was playing chess while his opponents were playing checkers. Obama slow-walked DADT repeal, it is true. For his first year in office, he didn't do much to advance the cause at all -- for which he really has no excuse. At the beginning of his second year, he announced that he was tasking the Pentagon with studying the issue. The way he did so was brilliant -- he did not ask the military what their opinion was on the policy (which would have been on shaky constitutional grounds, to say the least), he instead asked the military how they would go about transitioning from where we are currently to a military which allowed full and open service for gay Americans. Obama gave them almost a full year to get this report together.
This was brilliant for two reasons. The first of which Obama could not really have foreseen -- the results of the survey the Pentagon performed were overwhelmingly accepting of the change in policy. That gamble paid off for the president -- if the survey's results had been overwhelmingly negative, then getting rid of DADT would have been a much tougher row to hoe politically, and likely would not have gotten done (at least until the courts had intervened).
The second reason giving the Pentagon a year to prepare the report was a brilliant strategy was that it allowed the top brass to get used to the idea. Not only were the military leaders able to take their time studying the issue in a serious way, in order to plan the best possible route for the transition, but in doing so Obama gained a significant amount of Pentagon buy-in to the concept. Allowed to plan their own transition, the brass simply could not accuse Congress of forcing some sort of immediate shock to the armed forces. In fact, the generals wound up scared of the courts -- who would have ordered immediate change, if the ruling had gone against DADT. What this all meant was that the Pentagon got on board with the concept of legislative action from Congress as the best way forward.
This likely would not have been the case, had Obama moved forward without consulting the Pentagon in any meaningful way. If Obama had acted on his own (as many activists were entreating him to do), the Pentagon would have fought Obama's efforts to do so, and decried such efforts as playing politics with the military. This is largely how we got DADT in the first place, remember, when President Clinton tried to move without getting the Pentagon on board beforehand. Obama avoided Clinton's error. Which was planned. Granted, Obama did create the "last minute" nature of what happened in the lame duck Congress -- which could have wound up as a huge mistake, if the issue had failed. As it turned out, though, Obama consulting with the Pentagon and getting their buy-in on a plan for the transition was worth the time it took, and not only because it gave eight Republican senators political cover to vote for repeal. Allowing the military to write their own plan of action will lead to a much less traumatic transition period, in the end.
Harry Reid also had his role to play, and although he made quite a few DADT repeal advocates very nervous, in the end he delivered. Reid played his cards pretty close to the vest during the whole sausage-making process on Capitol Hill, but he stood firm at some key moments. When the bill first came up this month, it was attached to the military's entire budget, and Republicans were demanding ever-increasing procedural delays (in the hopes they could run the clock out). Reid stared them down, by forcing a vote on the bill. Only one Republican senator voted for it -- the same one (Susan Collins) who had been demanding all the delays. She realized Reid was taking a strong stand, and immediately went to work with Lieberman to strip the DADT issue out of the Pentagon bill, so it could be voted on by itself.
This was the point where Nancy Pelosi did her part. It was reported that the push for the House to act before the Senate came from (depending on which story you read) either the White House, or from Reid, or from Lieberman. But no matter whose idea it was to get the House to add some pressure, it certainly worked wonders. Pelosi had already, of course, passed DADT repeal in the Pentagon budget bill much earlier in the congressional session -- this was the bill Reid initially held the vote on, which failed in the Senate. Pelosi quickly rounded up the votes, and forced the House to vote on the stand-alone DADT repeal bill (much more quickly than the Senate was able to act, which was the whole point).
This sent the Lieberman-Collins stand-alone DADT bill back to the Senate. And this is where Reid was infuriating, because he refused to commit to scheduling a Senate vote on the matter. Lefties and pundits everywhere thought Reid was going to cave -- either by allowing the clock to run out, or by refusing to schedule the vote for some other obscure parliamentary reason. In public, it appeared the White House was more focused on getting the New START arms reduction treaty ratified -- which would have pushed out the DADT repeal vote until (quite possibly) after Christmas. But although Reid was not telegraphing his next move in the press, when he did move, he moved swiftly and decisively -- by scheduling a weekend vote on both DADT repeal and the DREAM Act. Reid had promised votes on both of these, and he delivered. There was a last-minute scare when a Democratic senator announced he would be unavailable for voting on Friday, Monday, and Tuesday due to cancer treatment, which may have prompted Reid to push the issue over the weekend, instead of on a weekday. But no matter what manner the procedural maneuvering actually took, Reid delivered not only a cloture vote (to move the issue to the Senate floor for debate) and a floor vote on the DADT repeal bill itself in the same day -- a relative rarity in the slow-moving Senate.
But none of this -- none of it -- would likely have happened without Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman took the point position on DADT's repeal, and he did it in true Lieberman style. Which means he sunk his teeth into it with the ferocity of a pit bull, and he confounded his opponents through a show of political strength. It is worth remembering that exactly one year ago this week, Lieberman was doing much the same thing (and absolutely enraging the Left) as he put the final nail in the coffin of the public option in the healthcare reform debate. Lieberman certainly knows how to use the threat of missing Christmas vacation, you've got to at least give him that (the healthcare vote last year happened on Christmas Eve).
Lieberman, throughout the past month, kept insisting that he had the 60 votes he needed for DADT repeal in his pocket. By refusing to name names, though, he kept everyone guessing as to which Republicans he had on board. By doing so, Lieberman was playing the game of politics better than his opponents. By insisting he had the votes (to anyone who would listen), he showed real political strength. By working so quickly with Susan Collins to produce the stand-alone bill, he showed that he meant it when he said he had Republicans on board. By refusing to give up on an issue that almost everyone -- including some mighty prominent voices on the Left and in the media -- was convinced was dead and buried, Lieberman bulled the issue through. By getting the House to act first, he created a valuable (but rather intangible) thing in Washington -- "political momentum" (insert your own "Joe-mentum" joke here, I guess...).
Cynics have ascribed all of this to Lieberman realizing he's facing an election in 2012. His championing of DADT repeal is seen as nothing more than a political ploy to convince Connecticut Democrats to return him to the Senate for another six-year term. His re-election prospects look pretty dim, even with his DADT repeal victory. As for me, I really don't care what Joe Lieberman's motives were.
Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama all deserve thanks for the part they played in the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." This was a solid victory for Democrats, and for the Left. Quibbling now over what other path repeal should have taken is now nothing more than a pointless academic exercise. It happened the way it happened, and I'm glad it has happened. Rather than grumbling, the entire Left should be celebrating this political victory. It is the most "Lefty" legislation passed by the 111th Congress since the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which passed quite a while ago, I should point out). And it was a "Lefty" victory untainted by compromise or bargaining away key components.
Now, I have been just as guilty as a lot of Lefties of heaping scorn on Joe Lieberman, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama over the past two years -- but only when that scorn was well-deserved. All three of these Democrats have done things in the past two years which have absolutely enraged me. And I will continue to do the same in the future, when they have richly earned such ridicule (in my humble opinion).
But a win is a win. And this win was a big one. Because of that, and for his ceaseless efforts in securing this political victory, I'd like to offer my public thanks to the man who -- more than anyone else -- caused it to happen.
Thank you, Senator Joe Lieberman.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant