'Don't ask, don't tell' in the Senate

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Post asked experts to discuss the politics of don't ask don't tell as the Senate considers repealing the policy. Below are responses from Dan Schnur, Aubrey Sarvis, Susan Collins, Ed Rogers, Michael Honda and Douglas E. Schoen.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign; spokesman for George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign

Even for a post-midterm Democratic president who has proposed a salary freeze for government workers, who is about to allow tax cuts for upper-income Americans to be extended, who's long since given up on cap-and-trade legislation and who still can't quite bring himself to support same-sex marriage, accomplishing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is not really necessary. But waging and losing that fight is good enough for Barack Obama right now, at least as a reminder to dispirited liberals that he will still occasionally set aside an evolving triangulation-based reelection strategy and stand with them when circumstances permit.

No modern-day president who has faced a legitimate primary opponent in his reelection campaign has won a second term in office. Conversely, no modern-day president who avoided a primary challenge has failed to win a second term. Which suggests that Howard Dean and Russ Feingold pose as much of a threat in 2012 to Team Obama as does Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. Which in turn suggests that even as the White House prepares a move to the center, base motivators such as this one become vital to protecting the president's left flank. Working with Republicans on issues such as trade, education and energy can accomplish one important political goal for Obama. But leaving a few bright lines in place to rally his own troops is just as necessary.

AUBREY SARVIS

Executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network; U.S. Army veteran

With the release of the Pentagon's report last week, we know that 92 percent of service members are just fine working with their gay, lesbian and bisexual colleagues. Their attitudes mirror those of most Americans, including our commander in chief, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a majority of the service chiefs.

The path for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is clear: The National Defense Authorization Act, legislation to fund our troops that includes the repeal provisions, must be called up in the Senate early this week under an approach that ensures senators on both sides of the aisle a fair shot at amendments and debate.

The immediate task for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be to find 60 senators to stop a filibuster threatened by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). No debate on the merits of the bill will happen unless a handful of Republicans break off and support funding our troops. If the 42 GOP senators - including several who support repeal of don't ask - stand with their party on process and procedure, their vote will be an endorsement of the discrimination that has cost 14,000 men and women their jobs and threatened our country's national security by discharging mission-critical service members.

SUSAN COLLINS (R-MAINE)

Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee

At least 28 nations, including our closest allies, welcome the military service of all qualified persons regardless of sexual orientation. It is time for the United States to do the same. In May, I voted as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to include repeal of don't ask, don't tell in the defense authorization bill, provided that the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs certified that there would not be a negative impact on combat effectiveness and military readiness.

After extensive interviews and feedback from service members, the co-chairs of the Pentagon working group studying the impact of repeal testified this week that nearly 70 percent say that having a gay or lesbian person in their unit would have "positive, mixed, or no effect" on the unit's effectiveness. Yet since this policy was enacted under President Bill Clinton, more than 13,000 men and women who volunteered to serve our country have been dismissed simply because of their sexual orientation.

This unfair policy should be repealed. And I agree with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the issue should be decided by Congress, not the courts.

Some of the most powerful evidence for this change comes from the experiences of our allies. At least 12 of the nations fighting with us in Afghanistan allow open service, and none reports morale or recruitment problems.

Societal attitudes have changed greatly during the past 17 years, but the need for patriot citizens to serve in uniform has not. Given the opportunity for a full and open debate, I believe that the Senate would repeal this outdated policy.

ED ROGERS

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

The president has managed to contort the don't ask, don't tell issue into a lose-lose-lose political, military and policy situation. That trifecta is rare and hard to achieve.

His left-wing political base, the rank-and-file soldiers doing our fighting and American voters distressed about the economy are or will be bewildered and unhappy with the president and the Democrats over this issue.

If there is a debate and a vote in Congress during the short lame-duck session, President Obama will lose and reinforce the perception within the base of his party that he has not mastered process and that he continues to overpromise and underdeliver. The same feelings of discouragement will exist in the left wing if he abandons the issue for the time being and meekly promises to take it up later.

The attention to don't ask, don't tell has no doubt already demoralized those soldiers in the field who oppose changing the policy and who increasingly feel ignored. The more this issue is debated, the more they will be discouraged.

Most damaging, Obama will again appear to have priorities that are wildly different than those of average American voters. Friday's unemployment report reinforces the desperate need for serious economic initiatives that unleash the American private sector to drive economic growth and create jobs.

The president does not have many problems that 18 months of respectable GDP growth won't solve. But he has to want it to happen and allow pro-growth policies to pass. Then he can pursue the peripheral issues that seem so important to him and his party.

MICHAEL HONDA (D-CALIF.)

Vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus

Whether the Senate approves repeal of don't ask, don't tell is not the question. If Republican naysayers hide behind disingenuous national security claims and succeed in stalling repeal, President Obama loses little in his quest to create equality in the armed services. In the long run, Senate Republicans, who are keen to turn this into a political charade, can't stop reform.

When the top military brass, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, favor a repeal of don't ask, don't tell, noting that a "solid majority" of service members say the repeal will have no negative impact, the deal is nearly done. They join a majority of Americans who have rallied behind repeal and a federal judiciary that is likely to overturn the policy on its own.

Only political obstacles remain. The few Republican obstructionists should either join the right side of America's civil rights history or get out of the way.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

It appears increasingly unlikely that don't ask, don't tell will be repealed in the lame-duck session. To understand the political implications of this likely failure for the Obama administration, the issue of gays in the military must be seen in broader context.

With the White House and Republicans close to an agreement on extending all of the Bush tax cuts for at least two years, and with the proposal from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform having won support from 11 of the 18 members, the administration is clearly moving toward adopting fiscal policy that the left largely abhors. For President Obama to minimize some of the discord that these policies will probably create, it is essential that he hang tough on the issues that are important to his left flank, such as don't ask, don't tell - which appears to have close to majority support from the country and from the military.

That's why Obama is unlikely to abandon this fight going forward, even though there is little evidence that he will win. He needs this fight to maintain his bona fides with the left.

To get reelected, the president must pivot quickly and decisively to the center on fiscal issues, meaning that he must appease the left wherever and whenever he can. Repealing don't ask, don't tell is still not a political winner for swing voters, particularly in the marginal districts and states that will be most competitive in 2012. But the president can't hope to keep his party together and his majority intact unless he demonstrates that he will stick to his principles on an issues that were campaign promises, such as don't ask.


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