'Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Debate?'

Conservatives have essentially abandoned the public debate on gays in the military, leaving an uncontested field to liberal activists who have seen national poll numbers rise in favor of letting professed homosexuals wear the uniform.

In the 15 years since President Bill Clinton signed the gay ban into law, homosexual rights groups have waged an unremitting campaign to repeal it, backed by the entertainment industry and mainstream media.

Conservative groups, attracted to other causes such as stopping gay marriage, have largely stayed silent, soothed by the fact federal appeals courts have consistently upheld the ban.

“The conservative movement figured this was a battle won and walked away from it because the military continued to expel openly homosexual people,” said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center, which exposes liberal bias in the press.

“This was not wise because the threat has grown in a near vacuum of news about the aggressive campaign behind the scenes by homosexual activists,” Knight said. “If only one side is on the battlefield, that is the side that is going to prevail. But I don’t think it’s too late for conservatives to rally behind the military and support the ban.”

Knight was among scores of conservative activists who mobilized to stop President Clinton from lifting the ban in his first months in office in 1993. The campaign swayed public opinion on the central argument that open homosexuality in the intimate confines of ground, air and sea combat units would disrupt the cohesion so necessary to fight effectively.

In the end, Clinton retreated, signing into federal law a ban which had been in regulation only. The actually policy stemming from the law became known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It requires homosexuals in the military to keep their sexuality private, or face discharge. But the military may no longer ask a prospective recruit if he or she is gay.

Fifteen years later, the odds are growing that the 1993 debate will be replayed in Washington, perhaps with vastly different results.

Democrats now control the House and Senate and have introduced legislation to repeal the ban. Polls show they may well increase their majorities in the November elections.

But more importantly, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who leads in national polls, has vowed to end the military prohibition. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, says he supports the prohibition.

Against a Democratic Congress and president, cultural conservatives would face an uphill battle to retain the status quo. And if a hearing July 23 of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel is any indication, Republicans do not seem willing to join the fight.

Democrats called the hearing to bolster their bill to remove the ban. No Republican spoke strongly in favor of keeping the law.

“One thing was clear in the hearing,” said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, which helped defeat anti-ban forces in 1993. “The Republicans didn’t show up, figuratively and literally. A few showed up literally, but even those that were there didn’t put up a strong case for keeping the ban.”

Why? “There’s no limit to how viciously homosexual activists will attack you if you cross them,” he said. “No one likes to be called a bigot and hateful. I think Republicans don’t want to be labeled in that way.”

Rep. John McHugh, the subcommittee’s senior Republican whom conservatives hope will fight for the ban, offered no outright support at the hearing.

He noted that the 1993 law was enacted to ensure military readiness and then said, “Our challenge is to examine and determine whether that conclusion of 1993 remains valid here in 2008.”

Conservatives are not getting help from the top brass, either. Marine Gen. Peter Pace was a strong ban advocate when he served as Joint Chiefs chairman. But his successor, Adm. Michael Mullen, did not endorse the prohibition in congressional testimony and said he had no objection to lawmakers reviewing the law.

One conservative activist who has remained focused on retaining the ban is Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness. She has been warning the right that the gay ban issue is not settled, mostly to deaf ears.

“The conservative groups have been very silent on this,” Donnelly told Human Events. “Some are saying to me, ‘Elaine let me hold your coat as you go into battle.’ If they had been more outspoken there would have been more Republicans in the hearing room. If Republicans are willing to fight Obama on this, the willingness is not visible. It’s not there.”

She appeared as a witness at the July 23 hearing and received dismissive treatment from Democrats.

A healthy majority of Americans backed the gay ban, polls showed, when the debate erupted in 1993. Now, how times have changed.

Days before the House hearing, the Washington Post released a Post-ABC News poll that showed 75 percent back gays serving openly in the military. That was up from 44 percent in 1993; and 62 percent in 2001.

In 2004, when Gallup asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing openly gay men and lesbian women to serve in the military?” 63 percent said they favored it.

Conservative activists said the polling is the result of two things: the gay rights movement has done a good job of tying the issue to civil rights with the help of the liberal media; and the Right essentially abandoned the issue.

“I think that it shows the success of the propaganda campaign that homosexual activists have been waging,” said the Family Research Council’s Sprigg. “There has been success in their effort to portray this as a civli rights issue.”

Said the Media Research Center’s Knight,  “I think conservatives forgot the lesson that victories are never permanent. You always have to fight some battles over and over. The fact that liberals are trying to do this again while Americans are at war means they are confident the culture has become so socially liberal that they can get away with it.”

Sprigg believes that a coalition of pro-military and pro-family groups can rise up again to keep the ban if Obama is elected.

“I’m hopeful,” he said. “If Obama comes in the way Bill Clinton did in ’93 and has this as one of his first initiatives, I’m hoping there will be more public reaction than there is at this point.”