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.

“Stand up for freedom”


An extraordinary video contribution to the debate over marriage in Minnesota. The speaker is Republican state representative John Kriesel, who (as David Link recounted last year) took a prominent role in the Minnesota legislature’s debate last year on the marriage issue. Kriesel’s website begins with the following first line, from a Minneapolis Star-Tribune profile:

John Kriesel may be the only representative in the Minnesota Legislature who believes two men should be able to marry each other AND shoot someone who trespasses on their property.

Speaking of marriage and the military, Freedom to Marry and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network have collaborated on a highly effective video that concludes with the haunting question, “What if you lost the person you love… and you were the last to know?”

DADT Is Ended

The repeal of the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that banned gay military personnel from serving openly (or, really, even if they kept in the closet, given the escalation of witch hunts that preyed into emails, followed up hearsay, and tracked service members’ off-duty socializing) went into effect today, although opposition by the socially reactionary right continues.

The repeal measure was passed at the very end of the last Congress, just before the Democrats gave up control of the House, due in no small measure to this.

More. On Tuesday night, I attended a celebration by the National Log Cabin Republicans in D.C. marking the end of the ban. Addressing the gathering and speaking movingly about its meaning, with many references to individual liberty and liberty for all (that is, Republican language), were Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Scott Brown, Rep. Richard Hanna, and Rep. Nan Hayworth. Also in attendance: former Reps. Jim Kolbe and Tom Davis.

As noted above, I believe that Log Cabin, with a national staff of three (yes, three!) played a critical role. Moreover, the true congressional heroes of the repeal were Sen. Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, it should be noted, never pushed for repeal or any other pro-gay equality legislation, but his role with “don’t ask, don’t tell” was particularly egregious. In late 2010, he insisted that the repeal bill be combined with an appropriations measure that the GOP was determined to block, and did with its filibuster. Reid then declared it was the GOP’s fault that the repeal failed. An incensed Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman demanded that a separate, stand-alone “don’t ask” repeal bill be brought forward, and the media glare forced Sen. Reid to capitulate. The stand-alone repeal was brought up for a vote and easily passed with the support of many senators, including Sen. Brown, who had voted against the combined appropriations/repeal bill.

Tonight, Sen. Collins shared that she simply couldn’t, at first, believe what Sen. Reid was doing (and then charged to the podium to protest the maneuver and its foregone conclusion—to no avail). It’s all politics, boys and girls. It’s all politics.

The history of “don’t ask” is full of the treacherous and soul-dead (during the Clinton era, then-Sen. Sam Nunn and Secretary of State Colin Powell stand out). And the heroes, especially the thousands of honorable gay and lesbian service members, many of whom had their careers—and in some instances their actual lives—destroyed. But there were political heroes, too, and Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman were at the forefront.

Furthermore. Reflections by commenter “another steve” hit the mark:

The Republicans are terrible, but the Democrats are often duplicitious. Some of the LGBT activists are so caught up in pro-party partisanship that you end up with HRC being silent on the non-movement of ENDA, which I believe could have passed (and if it failed with gender identity, it would most certainly have passed, with some GOP support, as a sexual orientation protection bill).

As for Reid, it is not just inaction. If only. Reid did not want DADT repeal to pass — too controversial, too much of a risk of backlash. But he realized that having failed to do anything about ENDA or DOMA, he would have to do something for the LGBT lobby (not that HRC would mind, but others were starting to make angry observations about what all that gay money and support was actually getting). So Reid devised a brilliant ploy — bring it up tied to a measure that Republicans were clearly going to kill, and then blame the GOP for killing DADT repeal. That way, no DADT repeal to be blamed on Obama and the Democrats, and the LGBT lobby is primed to give Democrats even more money and support for zip in return.

And it ALMOST WORKED. Much of the LGBT media and many Democratic activists were selling the line that Reid TRIED and the GOP killed repeal. It was duplicitious, dishonest, and dreadful, as Miller suggests. Fortunatley, some non-HRC progressives, along with Log Cabin and leaders such as Collins and Lieberman, wouldn’t buy the lie and forced Reid to send out the clean bill, which then (surprise, suprise) easily passed.

It is this sort of mendacity that Miller rails against. And it is the blind partisanship of some on the Democratic side that makes it possible.

A Mea Culpa on DADT

The 111th Congress, 2009-11, was a landmark triumph for the rights of lesbians and gay men. The passage of legislation permitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a watershed. It heralded the end of the counterproductive and cruel exclusion of gay Americans who want to serve their country in the military. This was a personal relief for the thousands of gay men and lesbians now serving, for many of those who have served but were discharged because of sexual orientation and may now re-enlist, and for the many more who will serve in years to come. Beyond that, it was important to have the country — by legislation, no less — bring homosexuals into the single most conservative institution we have, the one closest to the heart of citizenship, the one charged with the defense of our freedoms and values. The repeal knee-capped common arguments against the equal rights of gay men and lesbians in many domains, and will continue to do so as the hysterical fears it inspired are disproved in the years to come.

I confess to having been one of those who, in the fall election of 2008 and continuing until the moment of repeal last December, was deeply skeptical about the commitment of Democrats to repealing DADT and dubious about President Obama’s dedication to the effort. And while I could cavil about the sequence of events that led to the repeal vote, could note bitterly that President Clinton was primarily to blame (by incompetence, at the very least) for the codification of the ban, and heap praise on the brave handful of Republicans who voted for repeal, there is no question in my mind that it happened because of the Democrats, and specifically because of the gay Democrats and their supporters who worked for decades to change minds in their party. None of this makes any less important the work that gay Republicans are doing in the GOP. But we must give credit where it is due.

The Dancing of Politics

Steve Miller’s post on DADT makes some great points, including what appears to be the lack of action by President Obama as our advocate, fierce or otherwise.  I don’t discount the possibility that he might be doing his work behind the scenes and out of public view.  Sometimes, discretion is the better part of victory.  Not everything a President does has to be in the public eye.  But given the media’s just-shy-of prurient interest in this issue, it’s easy enough to imagine that the administration really is just watching the Senate agonize, and maybe crossing its fingers for us.

But I want to focus a bit on the politics that go unnoticed by most people.  The promise that Joe Lieberman got from Susan Collins and Richard Lugar is not what I would call a solid one.  What, exactly, or even approximately, is “an open amendment process?”  This is just the sort of subjective “agreement” politicians announce all the time to make it appear they have done something they have not.

I have no reason to believe Collins and Lugar (and others) don’t intend to vote for repeal.  But as we learned in the earlier chapters of this debate, their party’s leaders continue to have some sway over the strays.

The real test here, is once again of Harry Reid’s political skills.  The “open amendment process” is not an argument, it is an excuse that the GOP can use any time they find it necessary or helpful or just convenient.  Reid and the President can prevail (and I still assume the President does want to achieve repeal) only if they create the political climate where the GOP loses  more from continuing DADT than they do.  It’s a game of political chicken.  If the GOP thinks DADT’s continuance is better for them, they can claim any amendment process Harry Reid comes up with isn’t open enough.

And by “losing” I obviously mean political loss.  As is so often the case in Washington, not a single senator has a direct interest in this.  It’s easy for them to treat our equality as an abstract principle because for them that’s what it is.

That’s why Joe Lieberman stands out.  He has shown the kind of true and principled, actual leadership on this issue that only the best politicians even aspire to.  So, too, Patrick Murphy in the House.  In fact, Murphy had more to lose by standing up for us, and in fact lost in the midterms.  Obama’s commitment as our fierce advocate can and should be measured against the open advocacy of these two men.

But neither Lieberman nor Murphy has the clout of the President and of Reid.  This is now all about leadership.  But it will also be the acid test for the Republicans in the Senate.  How dedicated, really, are they to John McCain’s addled homophobia?  Is his really the face of the 21st Century GOP?

In fact, for the Republicans, repeal will give them all a chance to re-decide McCain’s most fateful judgment.  He could have chosen Joe Lieberman as his vice-president, but found Sarah Palin a better fit for his party.  He rejected moderation and bet the farm on empty partisanship.  In 2010, support of DADT is as empty as partisanship gets.  It has nothing in its corner except ignorance and fear — ignorance and fear that it seems even most members of the military have abandoned.

That is the political calculation that the Republicans will have to make for themselves.  For the Democrats, the calculation has to do with the risks of leadership.  They saw what happened to Patrick Murphy.  Do they have the courage to make this happen, and maybe suffer the anger of some voters, or will they take the easier course (for them) of leaving us with at least four more years of Bill Clinton’s compromised legacy?

Time Ticks Away for ‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal

From the Washington Post: “Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she will vote for repeal [of the don’t ask, don’t tell ban on openly gay servicemembers] if [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid can ensure a fair debate and will allow Republicans to introduce amendments.” Which he, of course, refused to do during the pre-election vote, ensuring united GOP opposition and a successful filibuster. Now, time is running out, so “If legislative efforts fail, LCR will turn all of its energies to its federal court case, which challenges the constitutionality of the policy.” And we’ll have to see how that goes.

Also in the Post, Jonathan Capehart opines: “now Reid gets a second chance to do the right thing.” Again, we shall see.

More. Obama marks Veterans Day with his latest move: he asks the Supreme Court to keep don’t ask, don’t tell in effect, as his administration appeals the district court ruling that held the military’s discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be unconstitutional. On Friday, the Supreme Court granted Obama’s request, keeping the gay-ban in place.

On the legislative front, the Log Cabin Republicans say they have “conducted meetings with numerous Republican senators potentially in favor of repeal, all of whom are waiting for the President’s call.” And waiting, and waiting…

Furthermore. From the Washington Times:

Many Republicans wanted to debate amendments on how the nation would handle trials for suspected terrorists, and also wanted a chance to try to strike language that would allow military hospitals to provide abortions to women willing to pay for them.

Asked whether Ms. Collins, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, would support a repeal effort, her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, said “she wanted to vote for the defense authorization bill and supports the repeal.”

“Her issue at the time was that Majority Leader Reid had said he would not allow any Republican amendments to the bill at the time. She was opposed to that process, which shut Republicans out of the debate,” he said.

Thanks, Harry.