Vice President Al Gore stepped on a land mine during last week's campaign debate. He pledged not only to allow gays to serve openly in the military but to make the issue a litmus test for anyone he appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The campaign tried to contain the damage and by week's end the vice president retreated partway in a hastily called news conference. Latest word: He will allow gays to serve openly but will not make the issue a litmus test for promotions to the highest military commands.
The Gore team may have spun its way out of a short-term campaign fiasco, but the long-term damage is harder to assess because pollsters will not survey the audience most affected by his remarks and the one most important for Gore's ability to function as commander in chief: the armed forces. If he wins in November, Gore may discover that the troops remember those throwaway lines meant to appease a special interest in key primaries.
Gore's statements hit two of the most sensitive hot buttons for the military, as revealed in a recent survey by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS).
First, he is endorsing a proposal that most in the military oppose strongly. Fully 75 percent of the up-and-coming officers polled opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military. As many as 26 percent said that they would leave the military if gays were allowed to serve openly. At a time when the military is struggling to meet retention goals, lifting the ban surely would be disruptive.
Second, with his proposed litmus test, the vice president unwittingly touched an exceedingly raw nerve about the proper advisory role of the military. The TISS study and a companion study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that many officers believe that the most senior military leaders have bowed to the winds of political correctness rather than honoring their duty to tell it like it is to politicians.
An astonishing 49 percent of those we surveyed said they would leave the military if "the senior uniformed leadership does not stand up for what is right in military policy."
The military probably heard echoes of Vietnam in Gore's proposed litmus test. Many officers blame the war on the alleged failure of the senior uniformed leadership to speak candidly to the president, Congress and the people for fear of losing influence in the politicized Johnson administration.
Gore seemed to imply that he too only wants yes men as advisers. Because of the up-or-out system, military officers know that this would trickle down through promotion boards, and with it would come the political-correctness poison they fear.
The Gore people undoubtedly hope that by rescinding the threat of a litmus test, they have put the issue behind them. But the cat is already out of the bag and any controversial military proposal in a Gore administration now would inevitably be viewed through the lens of whether he is politicizing the military as he once threatened to do. While the military still would submit to civilian control, the control would come at a higher price.
Recall that President Clinton extravagantly spent political capital wooing the military, trying to make up for his famous draft-avoidance quote about "loathing the military" and his abortive effort to impose a gay policy on the military without adequate consultation.
As president, Gore would be forced to make the same gestures and would lose the same leverage over the military, especially on unpopular measures. Ironically, barring an extraordinary swing to the left in Congress, Gore might even find that he lacks the political leverage to change the "don't ask, don't tell policy" he claims to abhor.
Candidates who want to make dramatic changes in military policy can learn from Gore's mistake. If they want to avoid spending an inordinate amount of effort as president trying to earn back the trust of the military they must order into combat, they would do well to learn these lines:
"I will commission a blue-ribbon panel of respected experts, including retired senior military officers, to review the policy. I will insist that the panel be balanced and thorough and that it listen carefully to the perspectives of those in uniform.
"I will take the recommendations of this panel seriously and then make my own decisions. If it recommends a change, I will work with the senior military leadership to devise a plan to implement the change with the least disruption to military effectiveness and morale. I will insist that my senior military advisers give me their frank opinion at every turn, and I will never, ever demand that they tailor their advice to suit what they think I want to hear.
"I know the military will faithfully execute the lawful orders I give, and if they do not they will be fired."
Gore's land-mine injury may well prove permanently disabling. Other candidates need not follow in his missteps.
The writer is an associate professor of political science at Duke University and executive secretary of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, a faculty consortium based at Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.