The Lessons of DADT Repeal

This account of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) in the politically liberal New Republic is fascinating for what it says, and for what it doesn’t say.

The report describes how the Obama administration did not want to pass repeal in 2010, when Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress, but preferred to push it off into 2011, when it was first likely, and then certain, Republicans would control the House of Representatives:

“When asked by LGBT leaders how Obama planned to repeal DADT in a Republican House, the administration’s DADT pointman, Deputy Chief of Staff, Jim Messina, had no answer.”

Not so clearly stated is the reason why: so the Democrats would have a campaign issue to galvanize gay voters, just as not passing immigration reform when in control of Congress gave Obama a cause to fire-up Latino voters. In both instances, the GOP is far worse than the Democrats, but the Democrats intended to use these issues for political advantage by not delivering to their base.

The article does relay how LGBT activists and bloggers forced the Democrats to move on DADT in December 2010, before the House shifted to the GOP in January 2011. However, it does not relate the heroic actions by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and how she mobilized her Senate colleagues against Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was doing everything he could to ensure DADT repeal would be tied to a package that Republicans were pledged to block, so Reid could tell Democrats he tried, and then blame Republicans for defeating DADT repeal. Collins, Joe Liberman (I-Conn) and a few others didn’t let him get away with that, and when Reid did allow a “clean” bill to come to the floor, it easily passed (as I blogged at the time).

The New Republic article relates how, following DADT repeal, the Obama administration for the first time embraced marriage equality. It doesn’t say that the reason it did so was it had to move on to another issue that would energize gay voters. But without DADT repeal, it’s unlikely there would have been movement on marriage.

The upshot: for this administration, everything is a political calculation.

30 Comments for “The Lessons of DADT Repeal”

  1. posted by Mike in Houston on

    First, what is new about political calculation in Washington? I suppose all those anti-gay marriage amendments in 2004 were just happenstance?

    Second, the assertions that somehow not moving on DADT would give them a fired-up LGBT base are just that… And comparing that to Latinos and immigration reform in the last cycle just plain ignores the truth: President Obama was VULNERABLE on this issue with the Latino voting bloc, until the GOP started in on their virulent anti-immigrant bombast.

    The real lesson to be learned is that a concerted effort by the entire LGBT community – that is focused and unflinching – yields results… and even gets a few Republicans to be on the right side of history on these issues.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      I was thinking the same thing. When was the last administration that did anything that wasn’t a political calculation?

      And as every constituency has learned the hard way, electing someone who made promises isn’t enough. You have to pressure them to follow through. Every time. That sucks but it’s always been that way and isn’t going to change. Politicians are looking to get re-elected more than they are looking to please the people who got them there. The list of politicians who didn’t operate that way would be short indeed.

  2. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    The history of DADT repeal will eventually come out in detail. Until then, we are dealing with partial facts, informed speculation, and opinion.

    I think that it is important to consider the Congressional issues/strategy and the military buy-in and implementation issues/strategy separately, because the two are distinct.

    Thinking along those lines:

    (1) When we discussed DADT repeal in 2010, I argued that military buy-in to the change in policy was essential to effective implementation. Without buy-in from the military, implementation would have been a disaster. The law that passed 2010 — delaying the change in policy until the military had completed a thorouh study of the implications of the change and developed a plan for implementation — was the sensible course, and the results — implementation so smooth that DADT repeal has become the non-event of the century — bear that out. Stephen and all the other “homosexual activists” that argued for immediate action were, in my opinion, wrong, as were John McCain and all the right-wing politicians who claimed that DADT repeal would destroy military effectiveness and lead to disaster.

    (2) The politics of DADT repeal are murky at best. The argument concerning the politics is whether (a) the Obama administration wanted to delay the policy change until the military bought in, as the Obama administration claims (Admiral Mullen had been laying the groundwork for about 18 months, but there was still considerable work to be done, as post-enactment events show in retrospect.), or (b) the Obama administration was trying to kill DADT implementation so that the administration could use the issue against Republicans, as Stephen claims without much foundation. I don’t know the answer to that question, but the truth will eventually come out, and then we will know. My guess is that a mixture of both factors, combined with reluctance of Senate/House Democrats to hand a “red meat” issue to Republicans for 2012, were involved in the politics of repeal. I’m curious about the politics on both sides of the repeal, and I am as about the President’s and Harry Reid’s reluctance to push repeal as I am about the Republicans’ “heels-dug-in” defiance of both the military and public opinion.

    (3) I have absolutely no doubt that DADT repeal got off the dime primarily because the “left/liberal gays” Stephen scorns made further delay untenable for the Obama administration and Senate/House Democrats. The pressure was intense and came from ground-up gays and lesbians. I participated in the effort to mobilize LGBT Democrats in Wisconsin, and I have friends who worked in other states. We put every bit of pressure we could muster on the White House and Congress. I have long held the view that politicians will move only as far and as fast as ground-up gays and lesbians prepare the political ground and force change. DADT repeal is a perfect example.

    DADT repeal was a near miss. In general, the Democrats (burned by the anti-marriage bandwagon in 2004 and 2006) were too cautious, while the Republicans were fighting change tooth and nail as usual. It took a lot of ground-up pressure, and a few brave politicians from both parties (most of whom are now out of office, either having been defeated or having elected not to run since then), to make it happen. It almost didn’t. President Obama and the Democratic Senate/House leadership were no heroes, but that’s not news.

    With respect to Stephen’s concluding observation (“The upshot: for this administration, everything is a political calculation.”) I would suggest that he is stating the obvious, in this sense: Politicians historically have embraced “equal means equal” about five steps behind the public, and have moved only after “homosexual activists” have changed the political environment and pushed and shoved without mercy. Democrats are no exception to this rule-of-thumb. And neither are Republicans. The reason why Democratic politicians are farther down the pike on “equal means equal” than Republican politicians is that “left/liberal” gays and lesbians have been working hard to move the ball in the Democratic Party for thirty-odd years, and “conservative” gays and lesbians have not been doing that until, and only in a few instances, very recently.

  3. posted by Don on

    i’ve always admired the republicans for their political calculation by draining the fundamentalist fever swamp of its money and votes, vilify gay people in the public square and then do nothing. frankly, its brilliant. i call it the mehlman strategem. no way we’ll get a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. but wow, just think of all the motivation we could get into voters by stoking their fears and hatred. we’ll get enough to get re-elected. but not enough to actually implement such a heinous agenda.

    Democrats have been banking on this strategy for years as well. how can we fundraise if the Republicans actually give us what we want? Both sides of the aisle agree gay rights is a good thing (with some modest holdouts) – at least among politicians. but there’s so much other corrupt stuff to pull while everyone is wailing about TEH GAYS.

    Middle East wars? prosecuting financial crimes? investigating torture? fannie/freddie? no-bid deals with contractors? the Catholic Church’s organized crime ring for sexual predators?

    Nope, no investigations into that kind of thing. let’s talk about homos A LOT but then we’ll both agree not to move very much at all on the issues. just like our friends in Uganda. they’re trying to pass the kill the gays bill so they can get corrupt bills passed without anyone noticing.

    • posted by Tom Scharbach on

      i’ve always admired the republicans for their political calculation by draining the fundamentalist fever swamp of its money and votes, vilify gay people in the public square and then do nothing.

      Do nothing?

      Republican legislators were instrumental in putting 30 or so anti-marriage amendments in place. Not to mention the plethora of laws prohibiting adoption, mandating “Don’t Say Gay”, prohibiting private employers offering benefits, vetoes of pro-equality legislation, and so on.

      I’d say that the Republican Party has walked the anti-gay walk, Don, not just talked the talk.

      • posted by Houndentenor on

        Agreed. A lot of bad legislation and constitutional amendments have been passed at the state level. In fact, most states have these laws on the books. If it weren’t for the Supreme Court about half the states would still have anti-gay sodomy laws, something Bush supported. No, they couldn’t get the federal amendment passed but they got state amendments passed. It was only last year that we started winning these ballot initiatives.

      • posted by Don on

        your point is taken. i would amend my point to say that there are 10-20% of republican lawmakers that are delusional, angry, vicious, rabid, religious nutjobs that make the Taliban look progressive. And every year they create these insane laws designed to attack us (and women). Dozens never get out of committee every year.

        While it’s also true that DOMA never would have been drafted by a Democrat, they did vote for it out of fear. Marriage ban ballots wouldn’t have ever happened without the American Taliban. But it needed at least a couple democratic voters to achieve passage.

        But I think it is unfair to say that Republicans are all charging to make us miserable. Most would just leave us alone. And some are making sure this stuff dies on the vine.

        I admit I was overly charitable. But I was trying to point to a real phenomenon I see on the right. Many pay lip service to the hate parade while stalling their agenda.

        • posted by Tom Scharbach on

          I think that the change in public opinion about “equal means equal” is beginning to show results among Republicans, cowing them a bit.

          I can see indications of the change you are talking about (Republicans talking the talk but not walking the walk) in Wisconsin. Legislative efforts to repeal Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Act (which grants hospital visitation, end-of-life decision-making and inheritance rights to registered domestic partners) stalled last year, and probably won’t go anywhere this year, either. The ‘Governor didn’t mention the issue in his “State of the State” message this year, either. So as soon as the Wisconsin Supreme Court tosses the lawsuit seeking to declare the DPA unconstitutional as “substantially similar to marriage”, gays and lesbians who are domestic partners can probably count on the law remaining in effect.

          But the fact remains that it will be long time coming before Wisconsin’s Republican politicians will vote to undo the anti-marriage amendment they put in place in 2006.

          Given that the 2010 redistricting ensures that the Republicans will be in control of at least one of the two legislative bodies until after the 2020 redistricting, nobody expects Wisconsin to be able to vote to remove the constitutional ban, because any constitutional amendments must be approved by both houses in two consecutive legislative sessions before the people can vote on it. We’ll get marriage equality in Wisconsin when SCOTUS mandates it nationally.

          Gays and lesbians in Wisconsin owe the Republican Party a lot, none of it good.

        • posted by Doug on

          A lot of words come to mind but ‘charitable’ is not one of them. If only 10-20% of Republicans are anti gay then how did all those laws get on the books? Sure as hell they were not sponsored by Democrats, although I’m sure some Democrats did vote for them out of fear of being smeared by Republicans.

          • posted by Tom Scharbach on

            f only 10-20% of Republicans are anti gay then how did all those laws get on the books?

            What makes you think that “only 10-20% of Republicans” are anti-equality? The most recent poll I’ve seen (December 2012) showed that close to 70% of Republicans were opposed to marriage equality. The percentage will go down over time as older Republicans die off and public attitudes move in favor of equality, but we can’t count on demographics or the passage of time to do all of the work.

            The Republicans have a structural problem. Hard-core social conservatives vote in disproportionate numbers in Republican primaries, and social conservatives are deeply embedded in the party structure from the counties up. The party is going to need to solve the structural problem before Republican politicians will be able to move to the pro-equality center of American politics.

            Pro-equality conservatives are going to have to get involved in their party and do what pro-equality Democrats have done for the last thirty years — work for equality rather than just talk about it.

          • posted by Doug on

            I was referring to Don’s statement that only 10-20% were antigay.

          • posted by Tom Scharbach on

            Doug, my mistake. I was reading too fast, and read “Doug” as “Don”. Old age and carelessness on my part.

        • posted by Houndentenor on

          I think that 10-20% is a very low estimate. but them I’m from Texas so both my Senators as well as my Congressman and rabid right wing extremists. The paranoia and delusional rantings that are part of daily conversation down here probably make it seem like all Republicans are this insane.

  4. posted by Jorge on

    The real lesson to be learned is that a concerted effort by the entire LGBT community – that is focused and unflinching – yields results… and even gets a few Republicans to be on the right side of history on these issues.

    And a Democratic president, because believe you me it wasn’t the Republicans I was protesting.

  5. posted by Houndentenor on

    I don’t think anyone denies Susan Collins (RINO-Maine) ‘s contribution to the repeal of DADT. In fact I think it’s fair to say that without her effort it wouldn’t have happened.

    But also note that the reason it was so important to do it then was that a Republican majority would make any gay rights bill impossible. The GOP is the anti-gay party. When I ask people here in Texas why they are Republicans they almost always say it’s because of abortion and gay rights.

  6. posted by Don on

    my statement as to 10-20% of republicans genuinely being anti-gay is simply that. John McCain is not anti-gay, but he votes anti-gay. There is a huge difference.

    He has gay staffers. So do many republicans in office. But the vast majority of Republicans are worried about taxes and regulations. They periodically go along with anti-gay rhetoric to appease anti-gay fundamentalist christians so they don’t get primaried. Santorum and Bachmann would absolutely die trying to make our lives miserable. But they really are a minority who think it is a serious issue that needs addressing. And their ilk are the only ones making sure this is on the agenda.

    My point lifts off of Stephen’s premise that it’s a political calculation. That is what I believe we are for Boehner. I really can’t fathom that he’d want to talk about us at all if he didn’t have to. But if making us whipping boys raises money and gets nuts to the polls, then so be it.

    Yes, republicans have passed quite a number of anti-gay laws. But how many have their proposed? And for how many years? I say more of these laws die than actually get passed.

    when i was a reporter covering the Georgia Legislature in the 90s, very few on either side of the aisle were genuinely anti-gay. they were relatively bright people who were embarassed that so much energy was used to regulate all forms of sex. But there was a vocal handful dubbed the “God Squad” who drummed up all this stuff in McCarthyite fashion. No one dared cross them. Not even democrats. No one wants to vote for legal perversion. (not that i think we are, but that’s how the debates get framed)

    My point is that 10-20% of them are writing these laws and forcing everyone to deal with an issue that 80-90% wish would just go away. That is my assessment. You can disagree with that. But don’t misrepresent it.

    One need only look at the immigration debate to see much of the same thing. McCain would probably do whatever Obama wanted on immigration if he could get past a primary. Bush tried to. Conservative politicians would love to get a solution on this and move on. But they’ll be crushed by their primary electorate if they do anything positive. This is why 30% of the country, which is 60% of the republican party, is holding the rest of us hostage on so many issues.

    • posted by Tom Scharbach on

      John McCain is not anti-gay, but he votes anti-gay. There is a huge difference.

      Yes, but I’m not sure how it cuts.

      Ken Mehlman was gay, and yet he implemented the Republican strategy to put 30-odd anti-marriage amendments in place, using gays and lesbians as political cannon fodder. Does the fact that he is gay make his actions more or less problematic?

      I’ll take your word that John McCain isn’t personally anti-gay. But that didn’t stop him from doing everything he could to block DADT repeal, including a long, angry speech a few days before the Senate vote which included extremely anti-gay sentiments, according to a Washington Post report:

      “So here we are about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side,” he said, and those who would repeal don’t-ask-don’t-tell “are acting in direct repudiation of the message of the American people.”

      He bemoaned “this bizarro world that the majority leader has been carrying us in,” and taunted: “Maybe it will require another election.” The Arizonan suggested those who vote to repeal would have blood on their hands. “Don’t think that it won’t be at great cost,” he said, punctuating his words by bouncing on his toes and chopping with his left hand. It will “probably,” he said, “harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”

      Immediately before the vote was taken, McCain took to the floor and reiterated the sentiments: ““I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage. Today is a very sad day.”

      So McCain is not anti-gay, but he argued that allowing gay and lesbian service personnel to serve openly would “do great damage” and endanger other service personnel? Anything at all to protect himself from a primary fight from the even farther right of the party?

      What this reminds me of is the story of Dixiecrats like George Wallace. After he was defeated in a run for Governor, Wallace told Seymore Trammel: “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race?” I said, “I’m not sure, uh, Judge. What do you think?” He said, “Seymore, I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”

      Wallace was not, by the standards of the time, anti-black. His relationships with African-Americans were, up until that point, he was not a hard-core segregationist. But after he decided not to be outniggered again, that all changed and Wallace did a great deal of damage.

      So it is with the Republican politicians like John McCain who harbor no anti-gay feelings pers0nnally but who are determined not to be outfaggoted.

      What lesson are we to draw from McCain’s example on DADT? That even service personnel — men and women putting their lives on the line for our country — are fair game for political ambition?

      At least Santorum and Bachmann believe in what they are saying.

      • posted by Tom Scharbach on

        I should add to this that I agree with Houndentenor and Doug that in terms of result, being anti-gay vs voting anti-gay is a distinction without a difference.

        George Wallace’s personal relationships with African-Americans were cordial, given the racial norms of the time. His views on segregation were not hard-core, and he focused his run against Patterson on schools, roads and other “good government” issues rather than segregation.

        No evidence exists that he changed his views after he decided not to be “outniggered”. But his actions changed, and his actions caused great harm.

        I don’t know what McCain thinks about gays and lesbians, and in particular gay and lesbian military personnel. He might like gays and lesbians, dislike them, or be entirely indifferent. He may make a distinction between gays and lesbians in general and gays and lesbians he actually knows. He may respect the gays and lesbians who work for him, or he may be cynically using them while disdaining them. In terms of result, it doesn’t make any difference.

        What matters were his public words and his public actions during the DADT repeal fight. McCain demeaned gay and lesbian military personnel during that fight by saying, more or less outright, that open service would destroy military effectiveness and cost lives. McCain’s actions during that fight, would have, if he had prevailed, kept in place a system of discrimination that destroyed military careers for no good reason and added a significant burden to the lives of Americans who were putting their lives on the line for the country.

        I believe that the Republican Party entered into a cynical, Faustian bargain, banging the “faggot, faggot” drum to arouse the “delusional, angry, vicious, rabid, religious nutjobs” in the Republican base to gain and stay in power. I’ve said that many times. I think that it was immoral to do so, and I’m disgusted by it. But in the end, bad motives don’t count. The words and actions do.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      Being anti-gay vs voting anti-gay is a distinction without a difference. I don’t care how John McCain feels about any issue. That makes no difference to anyone. He votes anti-gay therefore he IS anti-gay. The fact that he might feel bad while casting anti-gay votes makes those votes MORE despicable, not less. I hear this crap all the time and it makes me want to puke.

      • posted by Doug on

        Well said Houndentenor. Reminds me of the TV commercial “I’m not a pilot but I play one on TV”.

        If you vote anti-gay you are anti-gay and any gay staffer who works for you has no self respect.

  7. posted by JohnInCA on

    I’ll still take a friend I have to drag to the fight then a friend who pushes me under a bus.

    Oh, and don’t talk about how “easily” it passed when we all know rare the Republicans that voted for it were.

    So yeah. We had to push the democrats. Because if we waited for enough Republicans to get on board (pushed or otherwise) then we’d still be waiting.

  8. posted by Houndentenor on

    Two recent items of note:

    IL GOP chair may lose his job over support for gay marriage:

    John Huntsman comes out in favor of gay marriage (which means he isn’t running for president again) while Bobby Jindal takes the opposite view (which means he is running for president in 2016).

    Laura Bush asks pro-marriage equality group to remove her from an ad even though they quoted from her autobiography accurately.

    There was also a very nice ad with a straight conservative man explaining why he was in favor of his gay brother being allowed to marry. Sorry I couldn’t find the link.

    There are all things that would be worth pointing out on a blog that is supposedly about moving conservatives towards equal rights for gay Americans.

    • posted by Tom Scharbach on

      Along those lines, Republican state Senator Branden Petersen told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week that he is considering becoming a co-sponsor of a bill to legalize marriage equality in Minnesota.

      If Peterson does so, he will become the first Minnesota Republican legislator to publicly support marriage equality. I think that he will also be the first Republican in any state legislature to co-sponsor a marriage equality bill. What makes this even more striking is that Petersen voted to put the anti-marriage amendment on the November 2012 ballot.

      Peterson knows that his support for marriage equality might bring on a primary challenge, but decided to follow his conscience anyway: “At this point, I am concerned about doing the right thing. I have a certain amount of peace about that, and I will let the chips fall where they may.

      With respect to Laura Bush’s request to be removed from the pro-equality ad, I wouldn’t make too much of it. Jeb is reported to be considering a run in 2016, and Laura is probably reluctant to do anything that might hamper his chances.

  9. posted by Don on

    although i won’t likely make any friends here by saying this, I think Ken Mehlman did us a favor. As did McCain, Bush and so many others. Just like Wallace.

    For decades, we were unspeakable. Granting our rights unthinkable. Then, after all the hard work of the gay left by making the unspeakable, speakable, the right had to deal with us. And they have done so with a naked, visceral hatred that has no logic.

    My point is that they banned marriage. They codified DADT. And people had to talk about us. And that led to debates that were unthinkable before. My father, a former judge, told me in 1995 “I love you son, but you can’t have gay marriage.” And I asked him why. He said “marriage is about children.” And then I asked him if all the marriages he performed produced children. He hit me with everything he could think of because it was just such a foreign concept. I shot down every argument with a situation in heterosexual marriages. He still wouldn’t budge.

    Two months later, he called me and said “I’ve been thinking, and you’re right. There is not a single good reason to deny gay marriage.” But it took him a long time to digest such an alien concept. Even with a gay son.

    So they are doing themselves in. By attacking us, rather than leaving us alone. We are winning. This is why I believe we are moving so far so fast.

  10. posted by Don on

    As for anti-gay or just voting anti-gay, I think it is a distinction worth noting. I admit I may be wrong, but as more and more Republicans support gay marriage and there is a rift within the party, the McCains will switch sides.

    I believe easily 1/3 of elected Republcian officials don’t want to vote the way they do on gay rights. They just can’t see any way to do it and keep their jobs.

    Off the topic of gays, there is a similar situation going on over spending. Lots of the polticians don’t want to meltdown the economy. But they know they will be fired in a primary unless they shut the mother down.

    When the stuff hits the fan, unreasonable people will get a lot more reasonable. That is my point.

    • posted by Mike in Houston on

      Sorry, but behaviors matter. Whatever may be “in their hearts” or that they “have gay friends”, the fact is that their actions show them to be anti-gay.

      If someone votes to deny equality under the law to LGBT citizens — whatever the excuse (political opportunism or true animus), they are anti-gay. Period.

      That’s not to say behaviors (and the attitudes that follow) can’t change, but you still have to own up to your actions. McCain seems incapable at this stage of his career.

  11. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    –for this administration, everything is a political calculation.

    Well, I suspect that in just about every presidential administration (and vice presidential administration) and probably a good deal number of past, current and future politicians “political calculations” are certainly important.

    Again, having a Democratic Party majority in the U.S. House is typically a bit more complicated — in terms of party voting — then having a majority in say, the British House of Commons.

    If the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats have a platform plank that says “x” about gays in the military, its candidates are probably going to have to vote that way or else find another party (and possibly another career).

    That is not quite how things work in America and so you are going to be more socially conservative Democrats in certain districts and States….or at least Democrats feel like they need to have a certain socially conservative voting record to get elected.

  12. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    The progress in Minnesota is nice to see — we got three “major” political parties in the State and in some cases the vicious and cold hearted homophobia of the State GOP is thawing out, in little spots.

    Again the challenge is that in certain districts — in this case State districts — its it seen as being very difficult (if not downright impossible) to be a candidate who favors equality.

    Minnesota has got a very well organized gay community (and straight allies working in all three major parties) in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and a few other places (such as Duluth).

    But once you get out of these areas, attitudes about gay rights take a sharp turn to the right and the gay community is much less organized and effective.

Comments are closed.