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How to change 'don't ask, don't tell'

Sunday, February 7, 2010; A15

The Post asked pollsters and others to explain the politics of changing the ban on gays serving openly. Below are responses from Scott Keeter, Ed Rogers, Dan Schnur, Michael Buonocore, Douglas E. Schoen and Sue Fulton.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

Support for allowing gays to serve openly in the military has been stable for several years and is significantly higher in many polls than it was when President Bill Clinton raised the issue in the 1990s. When the Pew Research Center asked about this issue last March, we found 59 percent saying they favored "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military." Just 32 percent were opposed, and only 13 percent were strongly opposed. A recent poll by Fox News found a similar result among registered voters (61 percent in favor).

Underlying this trend has been a broad shift in public attitudes about homosexuality more generally, a shift driven by generational change. Compared with older people, young people are substantially more supportive of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military, to marry or enter into civil unions, or to adopt. On the question of military service, fully 69 percent of those ages 18 to 29 are supportive. Among people 65 and older, just 49 percent say that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly.

Changes in attitudes about policies toward gays and lesbians may also be tied, to some extent, to shifting views about the nature of homosexuality. A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 36 percent of the public believed that homosexuality is innate, up from 20 percent in a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1985. Similarly, 49 percent of those polled in 2006 said that they did not believe homosexuality could be changed, an increase of seven percentage points since 2003.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

The cynic's first rule of politics is: "Be for what is going to happen." And it is inevitable that gays will openly serve in the U.S. armed forces. For GOP candidates, however, getting in front on this issue could be harmful, especially in a primary. Much of the Republican coalition will never support gays in the military. Also, there are unique aspects of military life that need to be considered before forcing this social policy on an unwilling defense establishment that is serving this country very well.

Therefore, the best politics for Republicans is to defer to respected former military leaders. The incumbent leadership is compromised by its rightful loyalty to the commander in chief.

And for Democrats? The acceptance of gay Americans in all aspects of life is evolving politically at a rapid pace, particularly among young voters, who see anything they perceive to be anti-gay as unfair and backward. But the general population is not there yet.

President Obama may be on the right side of history, but forcing action on this issue now, with troops in the field and other, more pressing problems, is a mistake that will only add to the Democrats' woes in November.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

The White House has concluded that cultural trends in this country -- namely the "Will and Grace-ification" of American voters, whose exposure to gays and lesbians is much more widespread than in 1993 -- make this is an acceptable political risk. More specifically, though, it is a tradeoff with the Democratic base, offering it something in exchange for President Obama's new agenda of tax cuts and deficit reduction.

Obama didn't move to the center on many specific policy matters in his State of the Union address. But he did use the speech to dramatically reprioritize his agenda, primarily in ways designed to be more appealing to moderates than to liberals. His tepid defense of health-care reform came after more than 30 minutes on other topics. The paragraph on climate change did not include the words "cap and trade" but did call for expanded oil drilling and nuclear power. Immigration reform received one sentence in the speech, which is one sentence more than he devoted to organized labor's "card check" legislation. With last year's policy priorities necessarily buried under a verbal avalanche on fiscal responsibility, Obama and his advisers recognized that having a dispirited Democratic Party is not an ideal place from which to begin the battle of this November's midterm elections. So he threw liberals a bone that may help motivate them to turn out in the fall.

While there will certainly be a backlash to the decision from the right, it's important to note that the one-year delay in its implementation means that the change will not have taken place when voters go to the polls in November. So while cultural conservatives will certainly be unhappy, there won't be any photos or interviews of enlistees available to enrage the opposition until well after the elections. As the White House has learned from its experience on Guantanamo, a prospective decision not yet enacted may not eliminate political fallout, but it can certainly lessen its impact.

MICHAEL BUONOCORE

Former Marine officer; served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009; graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government

Some lawmakers' opposition to repealing "don't ask, don't tell" is rooted in the fear of how this singular issue will impact their popularity among certain groups. But they don't have to worry about adversely affecting the military, creating additional backlash.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bravely endorsed repealing "don't ask, don't tell," undermining critics who argue that such a policy shift is in conflict with commanders' prerogatives. He could have guardedly responded to the president's initiative without rebuke, but he chose to actively support the measure.

Many in the military don't feel the way Mullen does. But that really does not matter. The military has never been an organization that entertains individuals' petty concerns, and military units are unique in how quickly and to what extent they adopt their commander's comportment. Good commanders carry out the orders of senior commanders as if they were their own, regardless of how they feel about them -- because, in combat, executing quick, decisive actions against the enemy is what keeps our men and women alive.

This country has the most capable military the world has ever seen, and it's nothing less than an outright insult to question whether our officers and enlisted troops have the will and ability to carry out the commander in chief's directives.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The Obama administration's decision to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" may well be the right decision morally, ethically and militarily. But it could have a dramatic and deleterious impact on Democratic fortunes in November.

Despite the fact that military leaders such as Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen and former Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvili have endorsed the repeal, the American people have not fully done so. The results of referendums in California and Maine and recent votes in the New York and New Jersey legislatures demonstrate quite clearly that mass opinion has not changed as dramatically as elite opinion apparently has on the role of gays in our society.

The Tea Party movement has been motivated to a very large degree by our struggling economy. But it is clear that social issues lie just beneath the surface. I fear that the Tea Party movement, social conservatives and what is left of the Christian right will use this issue to further mobilize opposition to Democratic control of the House and Senate as we approach the fall elections.

The political impact could well set back the goal of achieving full civil rights for gays and lesbians.

SUE FULTON

Communications director for Knights Out; graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in its first class to admit women; commanded an Army company in military intelligence in 1983-84

Adm. Michael Mullen's courageous statement on "don't ask, don't tell" has thrown the anti-gay right into a panic. It's clear that the "threat to unit cohesion" argument made in 1993 was without base. Now opponents of gay service are madly casting about for any argument. Asked about the issue on Tuesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) launched into a discussion of "transgenders [and] hermaphrodites . . . that's going to be part of this whole thing." Oh, my.

If the right wing doesn't formulate a coherent argument, it won't slow the momentum for repeal. Meanwhile, we will continue to hear from Dan Choi, Victor Fehrenbach, Julianne Sohn and organizations such as Knights Out, Service Academy GALA, and Servicemembers United, representing thousands more gay and lesbian veterans. Their service -- and their truthfulness -- will be a tough argument to rebut.

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