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Nathaniel Frank Headshot

Life Support for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Are Democrats the Problem?

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To a degree that has caught even longtime advocates off guard, the substantive debate about whether to end "don't ask, don't tell" has rather suddenly been resolved. The impassioned statement by Adm. Mike Mullen, the first sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call for an end to the ban, reflects a sea change in military culture that some have been expressing for years: the young, professional troops of the U.S. military simply don't care that much if their unit mates are gay. In 1993, Bill Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, and Sen. Sam Nunn were confronted everywhere they went with angry troops demanding to be reassured that gays would not be allowed to foist their lifestyles on their pristine fighting force; but this week Adm. Mullen was so taken aback by the silence of troops in the wake of his call for repeal that he raised the issue himself in recent conversations, prompting crickets from service members and a change of subject to matters far more pressing to them.

Even ten years ago, "don't ask, don't tell" was already considered a joke by a new generation of enlisted personnel. By 2000, according to former Navy JAG Rear Admiral John Hutson, "Things had changed so considerably, that I think 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds were just laughing at us because we didn't understand what they were thinking." Hutson, who was an advisor to the 1993 Military Working Group that helped create "don't ask, don't tell," shared these reflections with me for research I conducted for a book about the policy. By century's end, he said, "young people had so dramatically opened up to the idea of working alongside openly gay people that us crusty old farts protecting them was just a joke."

As always, some troops will grumble about lifting the ban; but the majority say in polls that they are comfortable around gays, and they already know that they serve with them in their units. These are inconvenient facts for the far right and their efforts to cast reform as a dangerous risk to the military, rather than a simple act of replacing a failed policy from a bygone century with a recognition of twenty-first century reality. And so Sen. John McCain, once a war hero who cast himself as a straight-talking reformer, has been reduced to parroting the lame talking points of the religious right in an attempt to sound strong on traditional values and national security in his upcoming primary.

Yet despite the military's move to relax and soon do away with "don't ask, don't tell," repeal in Congress is in grave peril. This is so even though the much-vaunted supermajority in the senate is not necessary to repeal the current policy. As Sen. Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee explained to his colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an amendment to repeal the policy can be added to the must-pass Defense Authorization bill, which would turn the tables on the "no-to-everything" Republicans: the amendment would require a supermajority not to pass, but to remove, meaning that in order to keep the ban in place, the GOP would have to block the entire Pentagon spending bill, publicly undercutting the military.

True, the military brass have tempered their support for repeal with a call to study the issue just long enough to get beyond November elections. But as Servicemembers United has outlined in a memo, legislation for repeal does not have to wait for the study results because the issue at hand is not whether, but how, to end the ban. Legislative repeal could accommodate the Pentagon's requested timeline for further study, while locking the fact of repeal into place by the end of 2011.

So what's the hold up? President Obama has said he will work with Congress "this year" to lift the ban. (Sen. Levin could put repeal into the Chairman's mark, but it's not clear he has the incentive to do so.) But Obama has also said he'd like Congress to take the lead. Sound familiar? In an interview in 2009, Obama finally acknowledged that this very same tactic with healthcare was a mistake: "I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do their thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there, which allowed the opponents of reform to come in and to fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense." Sure enough, despite momentum toward repeal of the gay ban, the airwaves are beginning to fill with balderdash about openly gay service leading to a draft and, horror of horrors, government endorsement of tattoos.

So why on earth would the President take the same failed tack with reforming the gay ban? Why not put real teeth into his promise by telling the Pentagon to put repeal in the Authorization bill? Probably because this champion of a "new day" in politics continues to suffer from the Democrats' longtime aversion to taking the lead on gay rights, out of fear that culture warriors will exploit their position--never mind that Democrats lose more power by appearing bereft of principles and deliverables than by appearing to support equal treatment. And it probably doesn't help that the famously risk-averse Rahm Emanuel carries personal scars from his tenure as a young Clinton staffer when that president was burned by his own failures on this issue.

It's also not helping that the gay community has too often given the President a pass on leading on this issue. Yes, Congress has to pass repeal to get this law off the books, but that process should begin with Obama telling the Pentagon to put repeal in the Authorization bill. And for that to happen, gay groups will need to let the White House know that the status quo is not acceptable. Bloggers this week called for the President to take the lead, but also focused their attention on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the most powerful gay rights group in the world, which has been accused of championing repeal publicly, while privately assuring the White House that it can continue to go slow. Some feel that HRC would rather fundraise for several years on the illusion of momentum than actually help to achieve repeal. If HRC wants to disabuse the community of that suspicion, it will need to ensure that its prized access to Washington power is used to have a real impact, rather than to enjoy that access for its own sake. One reasonable option would be to publicly tell the President that it will not endorse him for re-election if he does not secure repeal in his first term, a promise that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he believed the President would keep.

The problem is that professed proponents of repeal keep muttering that we will get repeal this year, without saying how. "There is a clear path to repeal," said an HRC spokesman this week, "and that's the one we're on." Many of us would like to know what that path is if it does not include demanding the President put it in the base bill. Because legislative repeal will only become harder after the 2010 midterm elections.

If President Obama is serious about lifting the ban in his first term, he should put repeal into the 2011 Defense Authorization bill. If the military brass can call for an end to the ban, and if Republicans Dick Cheney and Colin Powell can join them in supporting this step, surely Democrats and gay groups should be on the frontlines of pressing for real action.