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Aubrey Sarvis

Aubrey Sarvis

Posted: November 23, 2008 07:12 PM

Don't Ask Don't Tell: Getting Repeal Right This Time


In 1992 then president-elect Bill Clinton announced that he was going to issue unilaterally an executive order that would end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. Big, big mistake.

Although the LGBT community cheered, we were in the minority. The bigots and the hysterics made a louder noise, drowning out the measured voice of reason. When Clinton came into office, he was opposed on this issue by the Joint Chiefs, including its chairman Colin Powell, by many in Congress, and, according to an ABC News - Washington Post poll of May 1993, by 55 percent of the American people. Of course, the Right exploited the issue and it took months for the brouhaha to die down. During those months Clinton saw a lot of his political capital evaporate.

After hearings that gave a number of people the opportunity to vent their homophobia, Congress decided on a "compromise" measure. It passed the statute we know as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which declared -- against all evidence and various studies commissioned by the Pentagon and others -- that homosexuality was incompatible with military service. So instead of the old regulation, which could have been changed by executive order if the ground had been properly laid, we got a law that now only Congress can repeal.

Fifteen years after the law was passed, the new president-elect Barack Obama is determined to avoid the mistakes the Clinton transition made in regard to this particular issue. As president, Clinton thought he could walk into the Oval Office, sign an executive order, and the discriminatory regulation would disappear. It didn't work that way, and it still doesn't. President-elect Obama wants to open the military to gays and lesbians but he's got to do more than snap his fingers to accomplish that goal. An executive order won't cut it this time.

In an astute analysis entitled "The Ghosts of 1993" and published on his much acclaimed website fivethirtyeight.com, Nate Silver asks, "What high-profile policy change has the support of 75 percent of the American public, and could be implemented by changing a very few simple statutes at essentially no cost to the American taxpayer?" You've got it. In response to his own question, Silver writes, "That would be a repeal of Public Law 103-160, the 1993 measure more commonly known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which prohibits openly gay persons from serving in the United States military."

To get rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" we must proceed deliberately and according to a plan, which will not require grandstanding but which will require leadership, lining up the votes one by one and reaching out to the Pentagon to ensure their cooperation. Public sentiment (in contrast to 1993), is leading the way. An ABC News - Washington Post poll identical to the 1993 poll was taken last July. It showed 75 percent in favor of open service with only 22 percent opposed. (One might note that the percentage of those opposed is virtually the same as President Bush's approval rating.)

The new Administration needs to hear from the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs about implementation and how to do it right this time. The Department of Defense was not on the train fifteen years ago and the train crashed. No one wants to replay 1993. We've seen that movie. We're watching another movie now. I like this one a lot better.

The politics as well as the people have changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. One hundred forty-nine members of the House have signed on to a bill, H.R. 1246, that would repeal the ban. More than a hundred retired admirals and generals have urged Congress to lift the ban. When Mr. Obama said last September that DADT was a bad law that should be repealed, and that he wanted to work with the military to figure out how to make that happen, he created barely a ripple.

The economy is collapsing around us and the specter of a serious depression looms. We are fighting two wars with not enough troops. The globe is warming and the ocean is rising. No one expects DADT to be the first item on the new president's agenda. But we do expect it to be on the agenda. And we expect action sooner rather than later. Make no mistake about it, this can be done in the 111th Congress.

If the new president can't accomplish this, what are the chances for the rest of his program? To quote Nate Silver again, "if Obama can't get a DADT repeal passed, then good luck with something like universal health insurance, which though also supported by solid majorities of the public, is not at 75 percent support, and will be met with much, much more vigorous resistance from lobbying groups."