09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Standing on Principle

Every four years the Democrats and Republicans name their platform committees, and every four years each party's committee produces, after much huffing and puffing, a platform that consists largely of a grab bag of pious sentiments wrapped in the flag and favoring motherhood and apple pie -- things every red-blooded politician can staunchly defend. Then the committee breathes a collective sigh of relief and goes home, another platform finally behind them, with no harm done and controversy avoided - or at least kept to a minimum.

But every now and then a platform committee girds up its collective loins and comes up with a draft that takes a real stand on issues that some might even find controversial, issues that make a real difference to the lives of real people. For example, in times past such a platform might have opposed slavery or the poll tax, or favored universal suffrage, or in 1948 supported ending segregation in the armed forces, a notion my former senator from South Carolinia -- that would be Strom Thurmond -- found so alarming that he bolted the Democratic Party and ran on a different kind of platform as a Dixiecrat.

Nobody bolted the party last weekend in Pittsburgh or last week in Cleveland, where the Democratic Party's platform committee met to draft the principles on which the party will stand in 2008. Yes, the party favors national security and a "world class" education for every child, affordable quality health care, good jobs with good pay, etc., etc.

But the platform committee also took a truly bold stand for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." That this country still bans gays from serving openly in the military is a national shame and an international embarrassment, but it's an issue that nonetheless raises the hackles of people like Elaine Donnelly, whose sole mission as head of her Center for Military Readiness is to keep the military straight. It causes nervous flutters in too many of our leaders in Congress and the Pentagon, and it got President Clinton in a pickle in 1993 when he tried to allow qualified men and women to serve their country without regard to their sexual orientation. Gays in the military? No way!

That's how we ended up with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It was a "compromise" that resulted in the discharge of more than 12,500 service members since 1993 when Congress passed the law. In a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, 800 of those discharged were deemed "mission critical," a category that included Arab linguists, medics, intelligence analysts, and pilots. Another commission reported that this witch hunt cost taxpayers some $364 million between fiscal year 1994 and 2003. That's only the cost in dollars. It's impossible to estimate the cost to our national security -- or to human dignity.

Four years ago you couldn't find a mention of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the Democratic platform. This year the statement is bold and unequivocal, no ambiguity about it. The draft that emerged last weekend (but that remains to be ratified by the full convention later this month) states: "We support the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the implementation of policies to allow qualified men and women to serve openly regardless of sexual orientation." You can't get much clearer than that.

With 143 Congressmen cosponsoring a bill in the House of Representatives to repeal the ban on gays serving openly, with polls consistently showing that for 75 per cent of the American people it's a non-issue, with 24 countries including Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and Israel not only allowing but encouraging gays to enlist, the Democratic Party has thrown open its closet door and joined the crowd. Under the circumstances, it may not seem exactly courageous but in fact it's a pretty brave statement for a politician to make.

Such major shifts in attitude that led to the abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, and the racial integration of the armed services did not occur in a partisan vacuum. They may have started out in party politics but in order to succeed they had to move beyond partisanship into the mainstream. The same is true of the abolition of sexual orientation as a standard for military service. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is on the way out not because one political party wants it that way but because most of the American people are coming to see that it makes no sense, that it is unfair, and finally that it is un-American.

It's clear that attitudes are shifting in our country, and that we're moving - not without a struggle - toward a world of greater tolerance. That shift, those attitudes are finding expression in the platform of the Democratic Party. Let's hope we'll find the same tolerance and enlightenment when the Republican Party sits down to write its platform, too. It's not about the political party we belong to, it's about the kind of country we are and what we stand for.